So you don’t have 5 acres (or maybe even 1/4) but you want to raise your own meat or eggs. Do you have a mossy patch of lawn that needs revamping, or a flower bed, or an unused sideyard? Then raise some chickens!
I’ve been working on my version of day ranging poultry and I’ve figured out a way to get high forage and meat or egg yields with low capital costs in a small amount of space. The chickens have more room to move around than they do in many commercial operations using tractors.
In some commercial pastured chicken operations these conditions are downright roomy. But they are not roomy enough for me. And I’m guessing you don’t have limitless pasture in your city lot so that setup probably wouldn’t work for you either.
What I’ve come to adopt is a system with rotating runs. This is a variation of day ranging chickens, only instead of moving the birds onto new pasture each day you are bringing new pasture to the birds.
Imagine a long skinny flower bed. Five feet wide is ideal because you will need to provide some sort of rain and sun cover and a raised bed hoop tunnel kit works perfectly. I use the Hoopla kit from Scratch and Peck, although you could certainly build your own. These hoop tunnel kits are really designed as season extenders for the garden and work fantastically for that purpose as well, which makes them a must-have in my book. So you can count them toward the cost of this system, or you could write them off as a garden investment that will get you another season of fresh vegetables.
Rather than having the plastic touch down on both sides of the bed, I fold it lengthwise in half so that it covers the west side, the top, and a wee bit of the east side of the bed. Then I use bird netting to cover the east side, snugly overlapping the plastic so there is no opening. The bird netting lets in fresh air and helps keep moisture down inside the run.
Why the west side? My beds run north to south so the longest sides are east/west. The coldest wind around here comes from the north and/or west, and in summer the strongest rays come from the west. During the hot days of summer I throw a brown tarp over the top of the plastic to shade the birds. It’s important to have good airflow when it’s hot but even more important when it’s cold.
I set up the raised tunnel so that it extends out from one side of a homemade, lightweight square coop with both a front and back door. I fasten the plastic to the side of the coop so that the chickens can only enter that paddock through the coop, and cannot go between paddocks if the door to the other paddock is closed. This will be key to having a fresh paddock full of forage at all times.
A few weeks before the chicks are ready to go outside, I sow both pastures with a mixture of fescue, rye, wheat, bolted kale or other leafy greens from the garden, dandelion, dock or lambsquarter (read free edible weed) seeds. The wheat berries in particular sprout in just a few days and act as a nurse crop for the other smaller and more delicate seeds.
When the chicks are small, I subfence off a small section of run #1 for them to use. They are still getting used to fresh greens and don’t need much space at this point. I gradually increase the size of run #1 as they grow and begin devouring fresh greens. When they are about to run out of fresh greens in run #1, I shift the hoop to cover run #2 and start opening the other coop door in the mornings instead. Then I immediately resow run #1 so that it is ready and waiting when I need it.
In addition to this low-cost forage, the birds get lawn clippings (which you could collect from neighbors with treatment-free lawns), garden and healthy kitchen scraps, weeds and yard prunings, and the cores or other compostable matter from seasonal foods I am “putting up”. They also get shovels full of worm-laden compost on a regular basis to supply them with fresh bugs.
Knowing that a varied diet is key to our health as a species, and that chickens in the wild did not subsist on a diet of just grains and grasses, I believe that this diet creates a chicken healthier than even the best grain and pasture operation.
It also makes it possible for you to scrounge up as much of your bird’s diet as you have time to srounge. Grocery stores often toss out past prime produce – yours for the taking. Neighbors also have kitchen and garden scraps. At Halloween there are pumpkin strings and seeds everywhere just going to waste. Get creative!
I continue repeating this cycle of alternating paddocks until the meat birds are the size that I want (or until they begin to crow…) If you are raising chickens for eggs you could continue this indefinitely. In the winter when the grass stops growing you can lay down wood chips to keep the beds from getting muddy and feed them chopped, soaked grass hay instead of fresh forage.
Here is an abandoned run #1 with hoop tunnel covering run #2 (attached to the north side of the coop.) In this case I did not continue sowing seeds in run #1 when the birds were nearly finished because the bed was perfectly ready for planting asparagus crowns (my end goal.) Bereft of weed seeds, abundantly fertilized, full of spent coop bedding and compost and all perfectly tilled, it now sits a good five inches higher than it did pre-meat birds. Originally this was not a raised bed, rather a run on top of bedrock. At no trouble to me I have a full freezer and a bed rich with nutrient dense compost and light, fluffy soil.
I raised last winter’s meat birds in the bed next to this one. After harvesting the meat birds I left the bed to its own devices and completely ignored the amounts of spilled feed, sunflower seeds and squash innards left behind. I chose not to weed the bed even after I planted raspberries, black caps, marionberries and tayberries in it.
By mid summer the wheat grass was thick and I was able to cut or pull tufts of it to feed the laying flock and spring meat birds. I left at least half of it behind to form wheat seed heads for paddock and cut the straw for lining egg nest boxes. I scattered bread seed poppy seeds and other beneficial insect crops. By summer the sunflowers and squash volunteers were vining everywhere. I harvested them in late summer for chicken food. Now the berries are tucked in to their incredibly fertile new beds, nestled in blankets of soiled coop bedding for winter, I have an ecosystem full of thriving beneficial insects where I previously had none, and I have as many poppy seeds as I can use for winter muffins and buns. From that 5′ wide run I got three crops in one year without really planting, tilling, amending the soil or other labor. Works for me!
One other thing I love about the hoop tunnels is that they are nearly twice the height of the average chicken tractor and much longer, giving the chickens opportunity for longer flights. The rounded sides and roominess mean that pile ups when panicked and “squishings” under the tractor frame when being moved just don’t happen (the most common causes for chick death in tractor operations). And by weaving downed branches through two metal tomato cages, you can create a series of roosts that increase the areas your chicks can use to establish a natural pecking order that eliminates fighting and provides them opportunity for more flying. This just doesn’t happen in tractored operations either.
If you are in a situation where you are limited in the number of chickens you can raise, you may consider raising Cornish X birds that will hit table weight in a matter of 8 weeks (the first 2 or 3 of which they may even be in a box in your basement). That way before people begin to wonder how many chickens you have over there, they will be gone. I prefer to raise Freedom Rangers that take a few weeks longer than Cornish X. They are astoundingly beefy birds with full flavor, that use those two extra weeks to develop some succulent fat. They are also really healthy, beautiful birds with docile personalities. I was so impressed with them that I saved a few breeders (Fat Elvis, Fanny and Mavis) from the last batch so that I could hatch out eggs next spring.
Meat chicks can be very inexpensive if you purchase them either straight run or all male. If you aren’t allowed to have roosters in your city, you have a few days to process the crowers while the young males are still discovering their voices. Any hens can stay and fatten up longer.
One thing you need to take into consideration is adequate fencing. In a securely fenced yard, cats and raccoons may be your only threats. If the area is not securely fenced you also need to think about dogs and vandals. In many municipalities, webbed electric fences are allowed so long as they are not close to property lines. This would be my first choice. The chicken coop needs to have a secure floor to prevent tunneling predators and rodents, and be locked up at night to protect the birds from raccoons, who have even been known to open latches.
What if you don’t have yard but do have a spare garage bay or shed? So long as you are able to drag in some sod and create two separate paddocks, there is no reason you can’t do this indoors. Chickens will grow faster with lights on 12-16 hours per day which may raise your costs a bit. But inside a secure garage or shed you won’t need the hoop tunnels or coop or fencing so you may come out even.
Even if you aren’t quite ready to start a batch of meat birds you might consider starting a new laying flock each year and just as the new girls start to lay, processing the biddies. Or when you start a new laying flock, order them straight run and when young roosters begin to crow process them for the freezer or table.
What about the butchering process? There is a ton of information out there on the internet, showing you how to humanely cull a chicken. My favorite is a series put together by Paul Wheaton of Permiesfeaturing Alexia Allen – a lovely local lady.
Many first timers are afraid they will botch things and put the chicken through undo misery. I would respectfully ask what makes you think that doesn’t happen in commercial operations? Have you seen the underground footage taken and heard the long list of affronts that happen to animals on a regular basis? Commercial operations like those are the reason many of you became vegetarian in the first place. I know that is what did it for me! I am comfortable trusting that because you care enough about animals to consider raising your own meat, you will do a far more conscientious job than any underpaid, resentful and unobserved worker will.
October Urban Farm Handbook Challenge #3: Raise Your Own Chickens for Meat or Eggs