Getting chickens out on your lawn has a ton of benefits, for the grass and for your hens! I ran into a serious conundrum when I wanted to free-range my chickens, they would never fail to stray a bit too far, get on the wrong side of the fence, and into our neighbors' yards. When I would open the coop door every morning, offering them their free-range freedom, I found myself checking on them every 45 minutes. It would disrupt my day, I was constantly stressed out, and the hens would always wind up into some sort of trouble. At that point, the only alternative was to keep them cooped up (hah), forbidding them access to all the wonderful things a free range chicken would have.
Why go to all the trouble of free-range chickens?
The benefits of having your chickens out on grass are numerous. Hens that are given access to pasture are able to hunt for bugs, earthworms, and frogs (yes frogs!) which in turn provides them high-quality protein. Chickens are not meant to survive solely on grain. Having the proper digestive system to qualify as omnivores, your flock’s health and robustness will skyrocket when given access to the diversity a backyard can provide. So if you are wondering why egg carton marketing goes to all the trouble to advertise eggs as “vegetarian-fed”, it beats me!
The nutrition quality of your eggs increases as well when chickens are given access to fresh pasture. Mother Earth News conducted a round of studies comparing their pastured eggs with store-bought supermarket eggs laid in a CAFO. The results are staggering.
“We have just completed testing eggs from four flocks raised on pasture — the results revealed that compared to supermarket eggs from hens raised in cages, our free-range eggs contained only about half as much cholesterol, were up to twice as rich in vitamin E, and were two to six times richer in beta-carotene (a form of vitamin A). For essential omega-3 fatty acids (vital for optimal heart and brain function), the free-range eggs averaged four times more than factory eggs.”
This is not the first time a study was done that focused on the nutrient superiority of eggs from chickens raised the way nature intended (outside, access to a diversity of plants, and plenty of sunlight). As early as 1974, the British Journal of Nutrition found that pastured eggs had 50 percent more folic acid and 70 percent more vitamin B12 than eggs from factory farm chickens. The next big dataset pops up in 1988. Co-author of The Omega Diet, Artemis Simopoulos, found pastured eggs in Greece contained 13 times more omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids than U.S. commercial eggs.Then in 1999, a study at Pennsylvania State University found that eggs from pastured chickens had 10 percent less fat, 34 percent less cholesterol, 40 percent more vitamin A, and four times the omega-3s versus to the standard USDA data.
Many consumers wrongly believe that the darker the yolk, the better the chicken’s diet, the more humane the treatment, and the healthier the eggs. I wish this was the case. Many major food corporations have caught wind of this “dark orange yolk” desire and have started feeding their hens a diet that makes their eggs more orange. The diet includes anything from marigolds to sweet potatoes, and although it is more diverse, the hen is still in a caged operation. While you may see dark orange yolks from your neighbors happy hens, that visual cue doesn’t necessarily mean a hen has been raised on pasture.
Now let’s add the boon of free fertilizer that keeps your lawn green. When your chickens aren’t kept to one specific area, often called a sacrifice area, their accumulating droppings don’t turn your grass into a barren moonscape. As chickens are allowed to roam, their manure is distributed in kind, giving you free fertilizer that you didn’t have to distribute yourself. Chicken manure is the most potent fertilizer in terms of animal manures, with the highest concentration of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. While many caution to not apply fresh chicken manure to lawns, we’ve observed that our lawn is perfectly fine. Chicken’s will congregate where there is a hefty amount of overhead cover from trees, shrubs, or outbuildings. Their instincts to keep out of harm's’ way from overhead predators such as hawks, falcons, and owls is a boon in terms of manure depositing. Their droppings are often distributed right over the deep root systems of hungry orchards, rose bushes, and ornamental shrubs!
Finally, the drop in having to give feed provides a big budget plus for those of us who spend the big bucks on organic chicken ration (guilty). When my hens are allowed out on pasture, it cuts my feed bill in half. When organic feed can cost upwards of $25 per 35-pound bag, that is nothing to scoff at.
So how to get the best of both worlds? Safe chickens AND free-range benefits?
Enter the mobile chicken tractor! Many chicken owners know about Joel Salatin’s egg-mobile. This is a genius invention for mega egg distributors who want to do right by their birds. Here at Green Willow Homestead, our chicken plan is much smaller. We want to keep our flock size under 100. Our five acres can get swampy and is overall a bit bumpy for large egg-mobiles (nothing like the gently rolling pastures of Joel’s Polyface Farm). We were inspired to come up with our own idea for a smaller version of the egg mobile that didn’t require the expensive addition of solar-powered electric poultry netting (about $400 in total).
Our set of goals here on the homestead were:
Like all great farm build ideas, this one started on some graph paper. Luckily, my guy knows his way around CAD and was able to create the perfect replica on his computer with the proper measurements. One trip to Menards and an Amazon order later, we were on our way!
PSST - you can grab the build plans for yourself here.
The white metal corrugated roofing reflects the heat of the sun so it doesn’t become an oven during the day. With two circular vents near the apex and an open-to-below roosting area, ventilation is ample.
The ¼ metal hardware cloth along the bottom prevents raccoons, dogs, and other predators from grabbing a chicken through the fence. The 2”x4” galvanized fencing is just the right size to keep flapping chickens in and overhead predators out, not to mention if you get locked in then you can reach your hand through and unlock the gate from the front (don’t ask me how I know).
The 8 ft height is perfect to walk right in and stand up inside the tractor when feeding or watering your birds. The A-frame design works wonderfully in terms of structural soundness, AKA a triangle is stronger than a square.
There is a ramp on a special pulley system we designed so the chickens can be closed up at night, preventing any digging animals or small predators like weasels from being able to slip in. It also keeps the birds shut up tight in the late evening or early morning, that way you can move the tractor without having birds in the way. This comes in very important when they are small!
The roost area is covered in 2”x4” galvanized fencing so droppings can fall to the grass below at night, keeping cleaning to a minimum. This also prevents larger predators from getting at the birds at night while they roost. You'll have to excuse the poop on the roosts in the photo above as it's due for its spring cleaning!
There is a large door off the back that allows you access to the birds while they peacefully roost at night. This comes in extremely handy if you have to clip feathers, do ID tags, or administer medicine.
Off to one side are four nesting boxes that are accessible from a separate flip-down door. It’s super easy to flip open and grab eggs throughout the day. We installed a chain because the door is quite heavy and we don't want to stress the hinges.
We hang waterers from a single metal chain down the center of the tractor run, but you can also balance them on either of the two front triangular corner joists. Whatever keeps the poop out, am I right?!
The tractor wheels have a unique design so I can move and turn the structure without needing any help or having to lift the tractor up.
You can either push the tractor from behind or pull it from the front with the attached thick rope. The tractor is so easy to turn thanks to our unique wheel design.
We ended up building a beta version that had a 4ft tall apex, but still usable! We then built two of the 8 ft tall tractors to house more birds. Each 8 ft tall tractor can house at the most 20 birds (25 bantams), but you must move them to fresh pasture every day. Which brings me to our daily routine with the mobile chicken tractors.
The Mobile Chicken Tractor Routine
Thanks for stopping by Green Willow Homestead! From chicken rearing to composting, we've got our hands full and we love sharing what we've learned along the way. Follow along as we strive to live sustainably and turn these five acres from just property to a fully functioning small-scale homestead.
Grab the Ebook
1. Joe Salatin
2. Rachel Carson
3. Wendell Berry
4. Temple Grandin
5. Diana Rodgers
6. Bea Johnson
7. Allan Savory
Favorite Books of 2018
2. Bringing it to the Table
3. Holistic Management
4. The Small Scale Poultry Flock
5. Deep Work