Deep litter chicken tractor and chicken pasture systems

Golden comet hensAlthough the traditional,
stationary chicken coop and run system
has very little to recommend
it, the competing options all have pros and cons.  In case you’re
considering including chickens in a permaculture system, here are the
advantages and disadvantages I see with chicken tractors, forest
pastures, and deep bedding.

are all the
rage right now, and we jumped on the bandwagon when we first got
chickens.  A chicken tractor is definitely superior to a
traditional coop and run as long as you make your tractor light enough
that you will move it every day.  Using a chicken tractor, you can
provide your chickens with plenty of greenery for most of the year,
which keeps their egg yolks orange and healthy.  Smart chickens
also tend to snag a bug here and there, which makes them healthier than
chickens living in the
Using a chicken tractor to work up new garden groundmoonscape of a permanent
run.  Finally, chicken tractors can be used in the garden to work
up new ground or to fertilize the soil during the winter, although I’ve
always felt that our chickens’ health declines when they are stuck
working on the same bare ground for day after day.  I would
definitely recommend chicken tractors to people in suburbia who don’t
have room for anything else and who just have a couple of birds and a
small garden and lawn.

On the other hand,
chicken tractors have some serious disadvantages for the
self-sufficient farmer.  If you’re raising more than a handful of
egg-layers, you either need to build a big tractor (tough to move) or
lots of small tractors (time-consuming to move.)  Tractors are
also too small for keeping a mature rooster with hens, so you’ll be
stuck buying hatchlings as long as you’re using chicken tractors. 
Finally, although chickens in tractors are healthier than those in
coops, they are less healthy than those on true pasture.
We’ll probably keep our tractors around for when we need isolation
coops, but other than that we’ve moved our chickens to the forest

Chickens pecking in a forest pastureForest
are my
current obsession, so keep in mind that I’m a bit biased.  Maybe
in a few years I will have discovered the disadvantages of this sytem
as well, but for now, I’ll just mention a few basic pros and
cons.  On the disadvantage side, forest pastures take several
years to really get established (although you can see some of the
benefits right away), and you need a lot more space than you do for
raising chickens in tractors.  On the other hand, even during our
first year we’ve seen that chickens are healthier on pasture than in a
tractor since they’re able to hunt for more insects and eat a more
varied diet.  I’ve also found that I’m able to get the same number
of eggs while feeding the chickens less storebought feed, and that’s
before any of our food trees come into production.

Chicken forest pasture expedites wood chip mulch decompositionHarnessing the fertility from
your chickens’ excrement is key in any permaculture system, and I
actually find the fertility a bit easier to manage with a forest
pasture than with a chicken tractor.  We tended to use the latter
to fertilize our “lawn” since tractors don’t work well with raised
beds, then we cut the grass to feed the garden.  With the chickens
roosting in a coop, we’ll be able to change out the manure-filled straw
or leaves at intervals and put it directly on the garden or in the
compost heap.  We’ve also been able to use the chicken pasture as
a way of
expediting wood
chip composting
garden waste composting, while providing insects for the chickens at
the same time.  And now that we’ve
winter wheat
in one
paddock, I have high hopes we’ll be able to harvest straw from the
pasture as well.  So even though we lose the chickens’ daily
manure as they wander around the pasture, I don’t feel like the forest
pasture system really wastes their waste.

Chickens on deep beddingAlthough we haven’t tried it
ourselves, many permaculture advocates are fond of the
bedding system
where chickens are raised in a confined coop on dense layers of straw,
wood chips, or leaves.  As the bedding is fouled, more layers are
added on top, so the deep bedding system concentrates all of the
chickens’ waste and creates awesome compost.  On the other hand, I
don’t think the system is worth the health tradeoff — without access
to fresh greenery and bugs, the chickens will be much less healthy, and
their meat and eggs will provide fewer nutrients for you.  I also
don’t like the idea of having to buy all of the deep bedding material,
since I’m trying to turn our farm into as much of a closed loop as
possible.  Perhaps a deep bedding advocate would like to weigh in
on the issue?

While I’m on the
subject, why not go to the other extreme and
free range your chickens?  Truly
free ranged chickens do tend to be the very healthiest flocks, but they
wreak havoc on the vegetable garden, scratching up mulches and eating
tomatoes.  I prefer to keep my flock healthy by continually
diversifying their pasture rather than risking the health of the garden
to their busy feet and beaks.

Tradeoff between chicken health and garden fertilityI
know this is a very long post, so let me sum up.  In my opinion,
alternative methods of raising chickens are all a tradeoff between
providing the optimal fertility to your garden versus keeping your
chickens as healthy as possible.  Deep bedding is at one extreme,
with unhealthy chickens and healthy gardens, while free range is at the
other extreme with healthy chickens and unhealthy gardens.  Both
forest pastures and chicken tractors have some of the best of both
worlds, but chickens tend to be a bit healthier on forest pastures and
your garden tends to be a bit healthier with chicken tractors.

Our homemade chicken
your flock’s health in any of their living situations.

Latest Comments

  1. November 7, 2010
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