Chickens in the Garden

by Harold Schrock | Jan 1, 2023 | 0 comments

chickens in a cage
Photo © Natalie Board/

In previous articles, we have looked at the importance of underground livestock such as earthworms, nematodes, protozoa, and countless species of bacteria. Also, above ground there are many beneficial insects—pollinators, spiders, and carnivorous insects that feast on garden pests. All gardens need these animals. But our gardens can also benefit from larger animals.

Not everywhere that gardens are grown is appropriate for the inclusion of domesticated animals. Where you can, though, they can render a valuable service to your garden.

Let’s begin with the most versatile homestead animal that can be included in the garden—chickens. Chickens roaming on the loose can do a great amount of damage to gardens, including sampling ripe produce and scratching out young seedlings. Properly contained chickens can provide valuable weeding, debugging, and recycling services. Not to mention the boost of fertility that comes through purchased chicken feed.

“Chicken tractors” or “chicken wagons” refer to mobile, open-bottom chicken shelters used to house chickens in an area of choice for a limited time. There are nearly as many design choices as there are homesteads. For garden use, I suggest a tractor the width of a growing bed and from 6-12 feet (2-4 m) long, depending on the size of the garden and number of chickens desired. Such a shelter can be built lightweight enough to be moved with two people, or, with the addition of some wheels, cantilevered out one end wheelbarrow style, with one person.

Every chicken tractor needs to have a covered end to allow protection from inclement weather. Incorporating a solid or slotted floor at the sheltered end, which can be closed in from the rest of the tractor, allows the chickens to be moved along with the tractor without escaping out the bottom. If laying hens are your chickens of choice, a nest box should also be included in this area with outside access.

If utilizing a wheelbarrow-style set-up, put the wheels at the enclosed end so most of the weight will be resting on the wheels when moving. Ideally the wheels will be offset as well as extended forward to run in the garden walkways instead of on the bed surface.

I caution against trying to make a chicken tractor light enough for one person to move without the assistance of wheels. You need to have enough weight in the structure to keep it from blowing to Arkansas.

Chicken tractors that are moved every day can get by with as little as 2.5 ft.² per chicken. I generally recommend stocking at less intensity to allow for some wiggle room in moving timing. Unless the foliage is thick, anything more than 24 hours at that intensity is likely to move past the point of optimal impact. Too much impact will start hardening the surface of the soil and will leave behind a larger deposit of manure than can be healthfully metabolized at one time. Most chickens most of the time will need additional feed beyond what they can harvest from the plot covered by their tractor. Truly free-range chickens can often find enough insects in the summertime to provide their feed, but held within a chicken tractor, they’re not likely to find enough high-energy food to provide their needs.

Where do we utilize a chicken tractor in the garden? Anywhere that we wish to recycle foliage. Crops that are finished, or cover crops that are ready for termination can be turned into chicken feed and soluble soil nutrients via our feathered friends. If we harvested carrots or potatoes and left the ground cloddy and rough, the residents of a chicken tractor will happily do most of the work of smoothing it back out.

There are other ways of containing chickens besides the “chicken tractor” pens. Chickens can be fenced in with poultry netting in either galvanized steel mesh or poly-wire electrified versions. Generally, at larger scale both in garden size and number of birds utilized, the use of fence becomes more practical. The use of fence allows us to use chickens to weed taller berry bushes such as elderberry and blueberry. Obviously in the case of blueberries, this should only be done in the off-season with no berries present.

If you wish to routinely run chickens among plantings of perennials, utilizing a permanent fence with a wire mesh tight enough to contain chickens and keep out predators will likely be the most problem-free in the long run. On a homestead large enough to utilize chickens in various places for a few days or weeks per year, I’m a big fan of electrified poly net with integrated fiberglass posts. This will keep chickens in, and land predators out, and can be taken down and set up in a new area in just a few minutes.

One or two sections of poultry net can be electrified with a small battery-powered or solar energizer for optimal flexibility. This can be located right next to the net and out of the way of other nearby activities. The downside to moving the energizer with the netting is the need for relocating a ground rod. Depending on soil type, that can be rather time-consuming to pull and re-drive.

I prefer to have a stationary, household-current- powered energizer attached to a good permanent ground system to energize a perimeter fence around my homestead. I use a reel of thin, multi-strand galvanized steel wire and step-in posts to carry the charge from the permanent fence to my temporary poly net locations. Aluminum wire would work equally well for this purpose, but I do not recommend trying to use common temporary fence poly wire for this job, as the strands in this type of wire are simply too thin to make good contact for carrying a charge to a heavy load.

The ground load on electrified netting is often quite high since we are running electrical wires close to the ground where they encounter plant material and occasionally the ground itself. I find this system to be so much superior to mobile battery and solar chargers that, had I no use for an exterior electrified fence, I would run an overhead trunk line of high tensile galvanized wire (well above the heads of any passersby) to carry electric charge to my temporary fencing setup’s. A steel rod with a hook and an insulated handle would facilitate hook-up to an overhead and otherwise out-of-the-way line.

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