We just got a small flock of adult chickens! We got three hens and six roosters from Echoing Hope, a local nonprofit ranch that is chemical-free and similar to Sabbatical Ranch in a variety of other ways. Even though the chickens are beyond their prime for meat or egg-laying, we plan to make good use of them.
Many animals can play a significant role in regenerating land. It all depends on how they're managed. Rotational paddocks can create amazing fertility! The idea is to move them to the next paddock before they make the last one look like the moon.
One pastured chicken can scratch and fertilize 50 square feet of established sod in about 4-6 weeks! They can perform garden cleanup for you, pest control, make compost, spread mulch, aerate and build soil, and more. Plus they can provide eggs along the way and a chicken dinner at the end.
It seems like common sense that you wouldn't want to eat anything from an unhealthy, sickly, or diseased animal. And yet standard fare comes from confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) which are typically very unhealthy. The agricultural industry is quite familiar with mold and the harm it can cause, at least in animal feed. Animal housing is another story.
Probably the most common building material for animal housing is wood. But as I've shared here, everything made of wood that's exposed to the elements rots during monsoon season because it's so wet and humid. Mold mycotoxins, along with any other toxins they are exposed to, tend to accumulate in the animal, especially in fat cells (just as in people). Just as highly-processed, convenience foods for people are filled with chemically-grown and unpronounceable ingredients, so it is with animal feed pellets. Whoever eats that animal is also eating it's accumulated toxin load.
On the other hand, animals that forage for food benefit from an array of beneficial phytochemicals from various plants they consume. These also tend to accumulate in the animal, especially in fat cells (just as in people). Whoever eats healthy animal products is also benefiting from those things. Natural detox happens with healthy diet, exercise (such as foraging), and a healthy living environment (just as in people). The opposite of each of those good lifestyle habits results in toxin accumulation.
This brings us back to rotational paddocks. After the animals are moved, the worked-over paddock is ready to explode with new plant growth! This could be your garden, your orchard, or a paddock with tree cover that grows a whole bunch of more food for the animals' next visit. We're starting with desert riparian landscape without much for a chicken to eat so we're providing all the organic feed they need. We were able to get some winter cover crops growing which will provide a little forage along with remnants from the monsoons. They'll also eat scorpions and the bugs that scorpions eat.
Chickens are called the gateway animal because they are so easy to manage and come with so many benefits. They say the easiest way to get started with pastured chickens is with a movable coop and movable electric netting - more for fencing predators out than for keeping the birds in.
Videos show how easy it is to setup electric netting in a flat, green field. It's not so easy on hard, dry, all-terrain desert landscape. Nonetheless, we're working with what we have right now and if everything works according to plan, we'll end up with wonderfully lush gardens, orchards, and pastures. In the meantime, every time I move the fence I have to use rebar and a sledgehammer to "pre-drill" holes for the fiberglass fence posts.
Does electric fencing work with dry desert soil? With most electric fencing you attach the positive cable to the fence and the negative cable to a ground rod. Then when an animal touches the fence while standing on the ground it completes the circuit and receives a shock. Dry or rocky ground is not a good conductor of electricity so it doesn't work well. The workaround is to have each horizontal line of fence alternate between positive and negative so an animal must touch two lines at the same time to get shocked. In either case the fence can be charged with a mobile "solar energizer."
But how do you make a mobile chicken coop without wood products? We have to do just about everything in unconventional ways - not because we're contrarians, but to avoid mold. This is the same problem we ran into with our arch form and I ended up with the same solution: PVC.
PVC is not without it's challenges. For one, it becomes weak and brittle in the sun, something we have a joyful abundance of in Arizona. For a longer-lasting material we used PVC conduit because it's UV resistant, but you can also use furniture grade PVC. For another, the easiest way to put it together is with highly-volatile toxic glue. I opted to use screws instead - almost 200 self-drilling screws using a hand-powered drill (I used glue on the DIY hinge that ended up not holding together). We have no AC or DC power tools on the ranch because we're off-grid and don't have a way to charge them.
We're certainly not going to win any awards for cutest chicken coop, but it does provide functional, four-season shelter. I like to keep my designs as simple as possible and on the windy desert, as low profile as possible. It is lightweight for easy moving, consisting only of PVC, hardware cloth (to keep predators out - everything wants a chicken dinner), and rain cover. The cover can be rolled up and down on any or all sides to block wind and horizontal rain and to provide shade when it's hot and insulation when it's cold - and it's drafty enough to provide adequate ventilation. The top is a lid for us to easily access the food, water, and nest boxes and a door that provides more shade when open and allows the chickens to free range during the day in each 1,640 square foot pasture we move them to. Inside is a portable roost with enough space for more than a dozen chickens to perch on. Hardware cloth skirting extends one foot all the way around to deter predators from digging under. Ropes attached to each corner double as guy lines to hold it in place and carrying straps for moving it from paddock to paddock.
Most people start with chicks rather than adult chickens. But with chicks you have to do everything their mother would do for them such as keeping them not just warm, but 95° hot for the first week. That temperature can drop by about 5° per week. That's pretty difficult to do without electricity. We're hoping one or more of our hens will hatch and raise some eggs they lay to expand and perpetuate our small flock. We'll keep you updated.
“A righteous man has regard for the life of his animal, but even the compassion of the wicked is cruel.” (Proverbs 12:10)
Dedicated Christian, patriot, family man, founder of Sabbatical Ranch