Managing Chickens in Mobile Coops on Pasture

Reader Contribution by Laura Berlage and North Star Homestead Farms
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The hens hit the pasture after a morning release last summer. Photo by Megan Barnes

May is an important transition time on the farm. We’ve made it well past the half-way mark with lambing (80 little ones on the ground, with 10 ewes left to deliver), cold crops are almost all planted in the garden, the honeybees are attacking the newly-blooming dandelions, and this week baby chicks arrive.

Yes, the first batch of 100 little meat chicken fluff balls will be coming via the postal system. But there’s a problem: The hens are still in the coop! And, um, well, I tried putting 100 little ones in boxes in the basement once (for two weeks no less) because there was still a foot of snow outside — and that didn’t go over so well with the rest of the family. I still find chick dust in places I had no idea dust could travel!

Sharing Coop Space

So, the hen ladies have to move out into their summer quarters so that the chicks can have a cozy coop and our house can remain unmolested. But the summer coops still need to be cleaned because it was mid-November by the time the hens moved out and things pretty well froze in. Hmmm…I’m starting to think there has to be a hole in a bucket somewhere in this story.

We were breaking new ground for potatoes, and the soil in the fresh patch was in dire need of some organic matter. The poultry bedding looked like it had well started into the decomposition process, so we hooked up to the covered wagons with the truck and hauled them over to the patch, casting out the unwanted bedding and droppings, which had disintegrated into clumpiness and dusty powder. I tell you, we were all ready for a good shower after that shoulder-breaking job! That smell gets up your nose, and everything seems like you’re inside that coop. Cough.

Ok, enough with the dust — time for the pressure washer! But what may seem like a five-minute farm job always ends up being five other jobs rolled into one.

First, all the hoses have to be drug out of the garage from their tidy winter coils. Then the pressure washer borrowed from the neighbor needs to get running. Hmm…no luck. Looks like it hasn’t been serviced for a while, and the gas is low. Then it’s get the gas and clear the line and check the oil and try turning the water on and off, and get more hose, and…

And then, once the blast finally gets rolling, then anything needing pressure washing is fair game, like the lichen-colonized deck. You know how it goes when a handy tool is working well — you just can’t always stop.

One Job Becomes Ten

Today, with the coops all nice and dry, the project multiplying principle struck again. First, I spread barn lime on the floor of the mobile coops as a sanitizer, as Kara unscrewed the wooden roosts from the winter coop to reuse in the summer abodes. These had some broken parts that needed repairs, which meant finding those bits of wood squirreled away from previous projects…and find some fresh screws…and… here’s always some reason to save all the pieces on a farm!

Then we unscrewed the two 10-hole galvanized steel nesting boxes. This meant evicting the grumpy hens occupying the nests, removing the metal pans at the bottom of each cubicle, and hauling them up to the barn hydrant to spray and scrape clean. (Darn, that pressure washer was all put away — should have thought of this job when it was out and working.) Then, I scraped and swept the dust and cobwebs off the top of the nest box frame, so it was all tidy and ready to mount in the summer coops. 

Dried by the sun, the nest plates were ready to reinstall and be filled with fresh straw. But, of course, when you open a bale of straw, you think of all the other places that needed some fresh straw, like the turkey nest with the myriad of hissing cobra heads waiting your arrival. Somehow, they don’t seem to appreciate your offering as they display their motherly defenses.

Then it was finally time to fill the summer coops with fresh bedding in the form of planer shavings from the local saw mill. These we keep in a big old chopper box in the barnyard.  Throughout the winter, we rake and scoop out chips to freshen the bedding pack, but now it’s time to start the coop out fresh. No wagon or two this time — this calls for running the auger with the tractor and pulling that bedding pile that has receded to the back corner to the front for some serious volume work.

But that auger sticks out beyond the roof line of the chopper box, so it fills up with snow and water and freezes solid until about this time of year. The bedding there gets all soggy and half-rotted, so it’s no use as animal bedding. So instead of filling wheel barrels to take to the coop, we start by spreading out a tarp and emptying out all that yucky bedding first. It’s wet, heavy, and sticky. This means that by the time the auger is clear, the tarp is too full to move out of the way. Now what?

Well, if it’s in the way, that means it’s time to put it to a purpose, and over the years we’ve used the wet, soiled shaving to mulch berries, herb gardens, flower beds, and more. We scoop it up off the tarp into wheel barrels or the dump bed on the back of the utility golf cart and haul it about the farm to prettify the landscape and add organic matter. But, of course, when you go mulch your herb garden, you realize that you still have to dead head the oregano and weed out the spreading sorrel…and…

Several hours later, we’re back to getting fresh bedding for the coops. The fluffy shavings help make the airy structure feel cozy, with the inviting nesting boxes in the back and leaning roost ladders in the middle. I hang the feeders, fill the waterers, and see that these abodes are ready for their feathered occupants.

The hens are certainly ready. Their winter runs are beaten and scratched. It’s time to give those pens a rest for a couple of months to regenerate and regrow. Out in the pasture, we move the mobile hen coops each week to keep the girls from digging too deep of dust holes or scratching the grass to death, but they can’t help themselves when faced with the same paddock for the cold season.

Mom and I string the electric mesh fence out from the chicken coop door, around the hen mobiles, encompassing the apple trees. Scratching beneath the apples is one of their favorites, so I’m hoping it will lure the ladies away from the old coop and towards the new ones. And I was right. In a rush, we had them chased out of the old yard, through the door, and onto fresh grass. We released the girls from their winter quarters, and goodness they were thrilled—tails held high, eyes busy looking for worms and slugs.

Now I’ve got to get that winter coop cleaned and spiffed up in time for the little cheepers that are coming. But that will have to be a story for another time — likely with its own winding detours and myriad of offshoot tasks along the way.

Here’s to happy hens laying tasty eggs, all summer long! See you down on the farm sometime.

Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café; 715-462-3453. Read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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