Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The chicken tractor cycle

The purpose of chicken tractors, for us anyway, is a means to add fertility to the soil with out the direct application of fertilizers, other than our own organic inputs, such as compost and compost teas.  In addition, the birds work the soil surface, and eat anything that moves including all insects and kill the occasional hapless mole that ventures into the tractor.  They get a daily ration of certified organic layer mix, scratch and broiler mix and that processed delivers a lot of nutrients as well.

In the fall we gather leaves and larger garden waste into temporary fenced corrals.  Usually we set these on a garden bed or use them to create new beds.  One is slightly visible below on the upper right of the photo.  We use our garden cages to create them and it is a good off season use for these cages.  I have assembled over a hundred fifty, so it's a useful off-season storage function.  They are made from stock 'red-top' fencing.  We have a lot of trees and if we don't collect the leaves, they end up blowing into the next township with the frequent winds we experience here.  We frequently refer to the weather extremes as 'Little House on the Prairie' weather.

By spring the piles are very decomposed and compacted, and I move the tractors to them as soon as possible.  The composted leaves and debris harbor insects and earthworms, so the chickens get a good spring protein boost and they work these piles extensively, adding more fertilizer to the mix.  The bulk of the debris gets chopped pretty fine.  They are moved a tractor-width every day or two.  These get a cover crop and eventually a planting for harvest.  They are extremely fertile beds.

Garden thatching, via chicken tractor.  The sheet provides a sun screen, and doubles as a spinnaker sail when the wind picks up...

We focus the chicken tractors(4) in the garden beds throughout the late fall through early spring.    The tractors need to be moved more frequently, each day, depending on the undergrowth and effort of the chickens.  You don't want them getting bored and you can cover more ground, especially as the weather warms in the spring.

As the spring planting begins, I migrate all tractors to the grass areas.  There they thatch and fertilize.  Lot's of greens to eat.  I usually give them dandelion greens every day whenever I'm in the area.

This thatched residue is crucial to our composting operation.

Once the garden area is planted, the chicken tractors are used in pasture areas to thatch and increase fertilization for the grasses and self-seeding edibles that always appear there.

From late fall through early spring, I also navigate the tractors to the fruit, nut and chestnut trees to work under and around them.

This is a chicken tractor 'snowed-in.'  The chickens we have currently as of 3/2012, are four years old and still going strong.

With an occasional modest deep snow for our area, the tractors will sometimes remain in one spot for a week.  I always spread some extra feed outside the chicken tractors.  We encourage a lot of song birds as they provide bug management, fertilization and left over feed cleanup, and I'm always concerned they may be dependent somewhat on the feed residues, so I do provide them feed outside the chicken tractor when they are 'snowed-in.'

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