When we moved to our Texas homestead we decided we really wanted to raise free-range chickens along with our cattle and goats. We fortified the coop of our 1880s barn so we could house our hens there. Each morning, I'd let the chickens out to free range and then lock them safely inside the coop each night when they came to roost.
Free-Range Chicken Predators
But one day as I went to check for eggs I spied a pile of feathers. Although my heart sank, I realized this is just part of the circle of life. But a few days later, yet another hen was attacked and killed. And another. And another, until they were all gone. Wow!
So we replaced those hens and one by one they also disappeared. We even set out a wildlife camera to try to catch sight of the daytime predator so we'd know what we were dealing with. Coyote? Hawk? Something else? We were never able catch a picture of the predator so we could never tell for sure.
Although I loved our 100% free-range operation, daytime predators had obviously figured out where they could get a convenient chicken dinner. We needed to make a change to protect our hens!
What if we moved the chickens closer to the house? I've seen some amazing chicken / garden combinations and was really interested in trying something like that. Our garden is close to the house so checking for eggs would be easy too. But our garden layout held some challenges for a combination garden/chicken pen.
Garden Layout Challenges
My garden is surrounded by a 3-foot-high decorative pipe fence, tucked into a corner of our barbed-wire fenced pasture just outside our front door. A 20-foot-deep underground concrete cistern is located just beyond my garden. It holds the captured rainwater that I use to irrigate my veggies all year long. Because the cistern is located inside a fenced pasture, our garden fence has two gates on opposite sides to allow access to the garden and also access to the cistern.
Although I loved the idea of a chicken run surrounding the perimeter of my garden planting area, the gate locations mean that setup just wouldn't work in our garden. Hummm... How can we make this work?
Here's what we decided to do: We sectioned off roughly half of the garden area away from the gates. Yes, my vegetable garden would only be half the size it was before, but by removing the raised beds we eliminated much of the walkway requirement of our previous setup. We'll now be planting in closer-together tilled rows so our garden would be smaller, yet much more efficient.
So we drove in 8-foot T-posts along the dividing line between the garden area and the new chicken run. Onto those T-posts we installed a 6-foot-tall welded-wire fence. This made separate garden and chicken sections within our pre-existing garden fence.
Then around this new chicken section we installed more 8-foot T-posts just outside the existing 3-foot fence and attached the tall welded-wire fencing. Now our chicken run is completely surrounded by a 6-foot tall welded-wire fence. The shorter pre-existing garden fence already had chicken wire attached about 18 inches high and buried into the ground to keep digging critters at bay, so that's just a small additional layer of protection for the chickens.
Finally, we moved in the portable Chicken Coop that we'd purchased a couple of years earlier when raising baby chicks. This will provide their nesting boxes as well as nighttime protection since I'll lock them in securely each night. Since we only have a few hens this works beautifully for us.
Safer Location For Our Hens
Now, each morning I stroll out to the garden to let the chickens out of the chicken coop and into their run. During the growing season, I take this opportunity to check the garden for any harvest or weeding/watering that needs to be done. About mid-afternoon, I release the chickens from their run to free range a bit. The garden fence keeps them out of the vegetable garden so their scratching won't damage my plants. And since it's already mid-afternoon when they're let out, they typically stay pretty close to their chicken run.
Their free ranging lowers purchased feed costs and eliminates countless pests determined to make their way to my precious garden such as grasshoppers, caterpillars, etc. They also forage around the house so they keep any scorpions from getting inside — an added benefit, for sure!
Here are a few of the benefits we've experienced from having the chickens in our garden:
• Close to the house - lighter predator pressure.
• Any garden spoils can be easily tossed to the chickens.
• Chickens keep Bermuda grass from encroaching into the garden from their pen.
• Shorter free-range time means they stay closer to the house - better security from predators and stray dogs.
• We're not constantly buying chickens to replace hens killed by predators.
All in all, I'm pretty pleased with our new chicken program. So far, we've not lost one single hen to predators since moving them into the garden area. Although our chicken run is not covered, we've had no problems with hawks from above nor climbing predators climbing up and over the tall fence. If those problems present themselves at some time in the future, we'll tackle them then.
Tammy Taylor lives and works on a Northeast Texas ranch, where she writes about home cooking, gardening, food preservation, and DIY living on her ~Texas Homesteader~ blog. Connect with Tammy on Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter, and Instagram. Read all of Tammy's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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