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Room to Manoeuvre

Coop design and flock management are keys to successful use of portable chicken shelters

By TREENA HEIN

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Portable chicken coops (also called chicken tractors) have the potential to provide many benefits for both small farmers and their flocks, as long as sound coop design and flock management plans are in place.

“It’s a great way to raise a few birds for the summer,” says Jason Cain, owner of Performance Poultry in Carrying Place, Ontario near Belleville. “It helps a little with the feed bill. They get fresh air and you don’t have to clean up the barn.”

Ron Hamilton agrees. “It’s way cheaper to grow them outdoors in the summer,” says the owner of Sunworks Farm in Armena, Alberta, where between 35,000 and 40,000 broilers are raised organically outdoors from May to October every year. “Barns cost a lot [for electricity to keep the birds cool].”

In terms of which birds are best suited to raise in portable pens, Jody Padgham, president of the Wisconsin-based American Pastured Poultry Producers Association, says any type or breed of chicken should do fine. In her experience, she’s found those interested in raising a small number of birds outdoors seem to lean towards heirloom genetics, because of the “old-style chicken flavour” and aesthetics it provides. “People seem to want birds that move around and are attractive,” she says.

Cain, however, is of the opinion that portable coops are mostly being used for meat production. “People use them for turkey too,” he observes. “Turkeys are great foragers, they love eating grass.”

Hamilton is among those who think broilers are somewhat better suited to portable coop life. “Broilers aren’t as high strung,” he notes. “With the layers, every time a gull goes by, they scatter and can injure themselves easily.” Hamilton advises that layers “should be more sheltered – in a pen that’s totally closed on the top.”
Whichever type of bird you choose, it’s imperative to remember that the use of a portable coop is not the easiest path. “It’s an intensive amount of labour,” Hamilton warns.
The first step is to either build or transport your purchased portable pen to your farm. Then, in addition to the usual feeding, watering and checking bird conditions you also must move the coop. However, how often you do that depends on what type of pen you have chosen and what your goals are.

If you aim to have your birds forage a great deal – in order to give them a certain quality of life, to achieve a certain quality of meat or eggs, for insect control, to save a bit on feed – you must move your pen every few days; chickens will stop foraging after the grass is covered with their manure.

You must also monitor the air temperature and ensure adequate ventilation. Birds must be put in the enclosed part of the coop at night to protect them from predators, or when it’s too chilly.

Many larger portable coops, however, are left in the same spot for years. Those designed to hold chickens year-round require a heating source. One advantage of these more permanent coops over a completely permanent coop is that you can take them with you if you move. They also lower disease risk if you move them every few years. As well, their portability allows the arrangement of your farm to be changed more easily.

DESIGNS
There are a dizzying number of designs out there, but the basics are the same: the coop must provide adequate protection from weather extremes and predators, and be heavy and strong enough to withstand wind and storms. The enclosed part must allow access for things like cleaning, harvesting eggs and checking birds.
Designs fall under several categories. There are coops that are easily movable with one or two people, which are usually on wheels. These coops are often small enough to fit inside a building in winter. Larger, more permanent portable coops are either moved with equipment or can be disassembled and reassembled. Lastly, there are “day-coops,” which are very small and can be moved between crop rows for insect control and soil fertilization on a daily basis.
Keep in mind that even small coops can be “ridiculously heavy, especially with nest boxes,” says Padgham. The biggest factors in weight are materials, size, and degree of insulation.
Karen Levesque sells both the plans for and already constructed versions of Ready Coop? from Kinmount, Ontario. These year-round coops are insulated and meant to be easily disassembled, moved, and reassembled by two people.
Levesque recommends that the parts of a portable coop that touch the ground consist of rot-resistant wood, such as cedar or black locust, or some other inert material. “For the walls, the raised floor (which is covered with a galvanized steel sheet, then covered with cardboard), and nests, primed and painted plywood is what we use,” she says.
“Steel or shingle roofing lasts longest,” Levesque adds. “Steel mesh is used to cover the vents and under the earth in the brooder floor.”
Padgham stresses that “the impact of the sun on the pen can really age it. Tarps can age quickly if they’re not high quality. PVC tubing that is not UV-resistant will also deteriorate.”
Whatever size you decide on, the coop needs an enclosed and open area. It is best to have your flock closed in your coop by dusk, safe from predators. Doors should be lockable, as latches can be easily worked by raccoons.
To better ensure protection from predators, Cain advises placing portable coops in a securely fenced area. “Even if predators get up close and don’t get in, they can really stress out the birds, especially if you have a flightier breed,” he says. “They could injure themselves.”
Hamilton uses electrified netting around all his shelters to keep away predators. “We have to move the netting and shelters every eight to ten days due to long grass shorting out nets,” he says, adding: “Shading the net keeps away bird predators.”
The Ready Coop?’s interior features a multi-level roosting area, which Levesque says helps facilitate the pecking order. The highest, main roost in her design is four inches in diameter. “There is debate as to whether that size is necessary,” she says, “but because chickens rest their bodies on the roost, in a year-round coop it helps to prevent deformed breast bones.”
She adds: “You also will not want your chickens to have to jump too far down from the roosting area, as they can cripple themselves doing so – no more than 18 inches.”
Levesque says that the indoor part should also have a window. “Chicken mesh can make it more visible and prevent birds from trying to fly through,” she observes. “However, windows and vents would need to be insulated, as well, during the coldest times.” She notes that frozen chicken droppings emit no significant ammonia fumes during the winter months, but when there is a thaw, venting is important.

other concerns
On really hot days, Hamilton uses a pressure washer on low volume to spray the birds up to four times a day. He says in extreme heat, ventilation must be really strong. “Move fast,” he says. “You have to be on that.” Don’t overcrowd your birds.
In terms of ration choice, Hamilton advises selecting one designed specifically for free-range living. “You want the feed to have a track record,” he says.
If you plan to sell eggs or meat, Padgham advises that you “start small and get your production practices down.” She says it’s a must to check out things like where you can get the processing done and what certification may be required for direct sales or selling at farmer’s markets. “Make sure you have a market before you grow them,” she stresses.
In terms of pricing, Hamilton cautions to make sure to include your labour. “Typically that’s higher than what the grocery store charges,” he says.