The Chickens Have Landed!

runamuk chicken tractors

Just over 2 weeks since Closing and I was finally able to bring the chicken flock to the Hive House. There was an unexpected kink in my moving plans that delayed their arrival and sent me prematurely into a construction project that I hadn’t entirely prepared for. The ending result was a pair of twin chicken tractors and the Runamuk flock set up on the garden at our new #foreverfarm location.

chicken tractors on pasture
The finished product: twin chicken tractors housing a total of 55 birds on the garden site.

Change in Plans

It was the nature of this particular real estate transaction that I did not have the opportunity to walk the property at leisure with an analytical eye before I bought it. Up until the day I came to the Hive House as it’s new owner, all I had to go by to prepare Runamuk and my family for the move were the pictures from the real estate listing, and Google Earth images. It wasn’t until I could tour the facilities and the land on my own that I could really take stock of the property’s assets and weaknesses.

Originally the plan had been to convert one of the barn stalls into a winter coop-space that would house the flock until after the dust settled on the #GreatFarmMove when I could then construct moveable chicken tractors to get the birds out on pasture. I had hoped to just put up a few roosts and cut a pop-hole in the back wall of the barn that would lead the chickens into a fenced yard. This space would house them through the winter, with the addition of a hoop-house off the back of the building. However, when I surveyed the barn at length for the first time I realized that was not going to work.

What I found in that back corner stall were the remnants of a dairy trough, and above that-on three walls were broad shelves where the previous owners had housed various sporting gear. It would have been challenging for me to try to take down the shelving to put up roosts and nesting boxes, but the real clincher was what lay on the outside of the back corner of the barn.

The first issue was that the entire back wall of the barn had been sheathed in sheet metal; I would have to cut into it if I intended to have a pop-hole. Secondly, the bug shack is right off that corner of the barn, with a very lovely spruce tree growing alongside it─directly in the path of my would-be hoop-house. And 3rd: there’s a pop-up garage sitting flush alongside the back of the barn.

Looking around for a more suitable spot, I decided upon the lean-to on the garage as winter coop housing for the chickens. It’s not completely enclosed, but there’s a back wall and a good roof, with solid posts and beams supporting it. Formerly this space had housed the previous owner’s snowblower and yard equipment. That would be a bigger project than the chicken tractors however, and since I want to be able to house the chickens on pasture through the remainder of the season anyway, I opted to focus on those first so I could get the birds moved over as soon as possible.

The Chicken Tractor Project

There are many different styles of chicken tractor out there; Joel Salatin has had great success with his set up, and I really like the chicksaw concept, but with my preference to use PVC in construction John Suscovich’s system was easier to adapt to meet Runamuk’s needs. With that in mind I set out to create a chicken tractor that would be small and light enough that I could move it across the pasture on my own, provides a minimum of 50-feet of roost space for Runamuk’s 50 birds, which would also offer maximum amount of nesting space without weighing the overall structure down too much.

chicken tractor twin construction
To have a moveable coop that was both small enough that I could move it alone, and could also house the entire flock comfortably, I needed not one, but TWO coops.

Striving to keep the overall structure as light as possible, I used 2x4s for the frame, 2x3s for the vertical roost supports, and 1x3s for the horizontal roosts as well as for the framing on the nesting boxes.

Half-inch schedule 40 grey PVC (which I prefer because it is UV resistant and does not degrade in the sun as quickly as the white PCV) made up my hoops, and I covered the exterior with chick-wire that was fastened to the hoops with zip-ties or stapled to the wooden frame with a light-duty staple gun.

chicken tractor nesting boxes
Nesting boxes along the length of the coop on either side allows 14 feet of nesting space per coop.

The nesting boxes hang off the sides of the coop, made up of quarter-inch exterior sheathing and this lightweight but weather-resistant material I found in the garden and cut up to serve as a flap for easy egg-collection.

chicken tractor backside
I’m using one set of wheels between the 2 coops.

The ending result was a pair of twin hoop-coop style moveable chicken tractors, each with 14 feet of nesting space and 35 feet of roost space. With tires on the back end I can use my utility dolly to hook onto the front and roll the coop forward to a new location.

Lessons in Preparation

Normally I’m extremely fastidious about preparation when it comes to construction projects, dedicating plenty of time to designing a plan and supply list. This time I was caught by surprise. When I realized I was going to have to stop everything two-thirds of the way through my #GreatFarmMove to construct housing for the flock, I merely put a sketch on paper with some dimensions and jotted down a supply list along the side of the page.

As a result of my lack of planning, there were a couple things I had overlooked and when I had to run for more supplies it was a bit of a trek from my new location in New Portland to the nearest lumber yard or hardware store in Madison. Having to run for materials or parts eats up a lot of time when living so remotely, and the chicken tractor project was a valuable lesson in preparation for life at the Hive House.

learning to use a power saw
I am now proficient with my Ryobi power saw!

I also had to learn how to use a power saw. I’ve traditionally used a simple handsaw for most construction, and asked the man in my life to do any bigger cuts that required the use of power saws. Big whirling blades of death frighten me and I’ve avoided confronting those fears, preferring smaller power tools like my drill, and my weed-whacker. However this was a bigger project with a lot of cuts and I am the man in my life now, so I decided it was time to learn this skill. I started small, with a battery-powered ryobi circular saw─it’s probably the smallest and cutest circular saw out there lol─so it was less threatening than most saws.

The Chickens Have Landed at the Hive House!

The chicken tractors are finished now, and the chickens have landed at the hive house. I have just a few more car loads this week to finish up the moving and then I think I can start unpacking lol. It feels really great to have the work-spaces that Runamuk needs─so far I’ve assembled bee equipment in the barn, wrapped soap in the upstairs craft room, and celebrated with friends in the Bug Shack. I wake up each day eager to get to the work that this farm provides me, and I go to bed each night sore, but happy. I am focused on the task at hand: growing this farm and ensuring it’s longevity. Every day is an adventure, and life is good.

Thanks for reading! Subscribe by email to receive the latest from Runamuk directly to your in-box, or follow @runamukacres on Twitter or Instagram for a behind the scenes look at life on this bee-friendly farm!

How to Build a Temporary Chicken Coop for a Maine Winter

Housing for the chickens was a big concern during Runamuk’s Great Farm Move. It had taken a full year to rebuild the Runamuk flock following my divorce, and I was up to nearly 90 birds in varying stages of production when I made the difficult decision to let go of Jim’s property in Starks. As we build up our apiary for honey production, selling eggs at the local farmers’ market has been a crucial stop-gap for Runamuk. Without honey we only have our beeswax soaps and salves available, but the rules of our market dictate that vendors can sell only a percentage of craft-items. So the eggs are important in order for my farm to continue to sell at the farmers’ market.

However, while Jim’s farm offered existing infrastructure─a huge asset in establishing a farm─Paul’s place does not. And with Paul busy trying to make the old mobile home there fit for habitation through the winter, he couldn’t spare the time to construct a coop for the birds. What was I going to do with my chickens?

I briefly considered selling and/or culling the entire flock; with the price of grain, selling eggs at $4 doesn’t really turn a profit. But again, not having eggs at market wasn’t really an option so I decided that it was imperative that at least half the flock make it through the move.

Enter the hoop-coop: a temporary chicken coop structure made from a hoop-house.

temporary-chicken-coop-for-winterWhat is a Hoop-House?

I’m a big fan of the hoop-structures: mini hoop-houses, low-tunnels, chicken tractors, cold-frames, high-tunnels─you name it! These are simple and inexpensive structures typically made up of a wooden frame, hooped EMT or plastic piping, and then covered with heavy greenhouse plastic. In many cases these are heated only by the sun and cooled by the wind.

diy-high-tunnel
Here are some of the high-tunnels at the Johnny’s Selected Seeds research farm in Albion, Maine.
hoop-house-how-to
Quick and dirty seedling hoop-house I made back in 2013 using rebar, PVC and 4mil contractor’s plastic.

A hoop-house allows the gardener or farmer to extend their growing season by 4 to 6 weeks in the spring and the fall, provides protection of crops from increment weather, and offers the ability to grow some superior crops. Here in the northeast many growers prefer to grow heat-loving crops inside their high-tunnels because they can keep more controlled conditions for high-revenue produce like tomatoes, peppers, squashes and melons.

Note: See my review of the Tufflite IV greenhouse film for more information about this useful tool for gardeners, homesteaders, and farmers!

Check out Runamuk’s Hoop-Coop in this video!

Features and Benefits of this Design

  • Simple construction
  • Can be built with hand-tools
  • Mostly a 1-person job
  • Relatively inexpensive to construct
  • Sheds snow well
  • Versatile structure for multiple uses
  • Space for 30-40 birds*
  • Tall enough to stand/work inside
  • Birds are under sunlight ALL DAY
  • Moveable**
  • Can attach other equipment to the wooden frame.

*The industry standard is 4 square-feet of space per bird, so I can fit 30 birds in this structure. In the winter however, here in Maine’s northern climate, farmers often crowd a few extra birds together for added warmth at night. I’ve had 37 birds in this coop since the move and so long as there has been adequate roosting space they seem to be fine.

This coop is moveable, however it’s rugged enough where most individuals aren’t going to be able to haul it off through the power of just their body. Probably 2-4 people could drag this coop across the ground, but I’m planning to sink some heavy duty eye-bolts into the base of the hoop-coop’s frame, and I could either use a sturdy rope or a tow-chain to hook it onto my Subaru and pull it where I want it─provided I can get my car to the desired location!

Constructing the Hoop-Coop

I constructed my temporary chicken coop in a series of phases; I’m pretty methodical when it comes to construction.

temporary-chicken-coop
I don’t have a truck at the moment, but Theodore Roosevelt once said, “Do what you can, where you’re at, right now.”

Phase 1:  I spent weeks leading up to the project researching to see what other farmers had done, and talking with my market peeps or colleagues at Johnny’s about the best way to do this. I put together a design that I liked and made up my materials list. Then I took myself off to Home Depot.

Phase 2:  The appointed day dawned and I set up early, putting my sawhorses in place and hauling out all of my equipment and materials. I’m very careful to measure twice before making any cuts, and I almost always pre-drill my screws. The frame of the coop, along with the hoops were all put together within a few hours.

hoop-house-infrastructure-beginning-farmersPhase 3:  I came back another day to put the door on. Framed in the ends and then added chicken wire.

Phase 4: I had to coordinate scheduling with Paul to get the plastic on over the top. Then I put plastic over the chicken wire to close it in for the winter.

putting-plastic-on-hoop-house
Here is the hoop-house chicken coop with plastic on.

Voila! Temporary chicken-coop durable enough to withstand a Maine winter!

For those who might like to construct their own hoop-coop I’ve created Free Chicken Coop Design Download for you! It has step-by-step instructions with plenty of pictures, a materials list with sourcing information. You’re welcome!

Problems Encountered During & Since Project Completion

Too Much Outside Input:

I have a lot of farming-friends and I asked many of them for their input as I was developing the design for my hoop-coop. I had so much advice that it was difficult for me to figure out which plan would work best for me-as a female farmer─and which method would best meet my skill level in construction. Ken and Kamala Hahn deserve special thanks for their input on the design of the hoop-coop; these farming friends even went so far as to send me pictures of their own temporary coop structure to help me formulate a design.

I really wanted to use the EMT metal conduit as they do in the construction of high-tunnels, but my friend Crymson Sullivan (aka – Krim) over at Sidehill Farm in Madison, reminded me that they use carriage bolts on those, and that there’s a lot of drilling and grinding when assembling the metal hoops of a high-tunnel to prevent sharp edges from cutting through the greenhouse film. He steered me in the grey electrical conduit, sharing that he has a buddy who uses the stuff to construct full-size high-tunnels for his operation, and since I already have an affinity for PVC-structures this option was right up my alley! Thanks Crym!

Extra Hands Needed for a Couple of Stages of Construction

Paul was busy finalizing necessities like plumbing in the trailer-homestead and time was of the essence so it was important that I complete this project on my own. I managed the frame and the hoops just fine, but when it came time to affix the supports for the door I found it tricky to put up the door frame alone. I strongly urge you to recruit another pair of hands to hold the 2x4s while you screw the bottom end to the frame of your structure. I did this by myself, but it was difficult to keep the 2×4 straight and upright with just one hand, while attempting to screw the 2×4 in place with the one other hand. The 2×4 wavered─I wavered─and I clonked myself in the head with the 2×4 so hard that I saw stars. Extra hands would have made this part a lot easier, but you don’t have to take my word for it!

Difficult to Protect Plastic From Chicken-Wire

Because this structure was initially intended for chickens I wrapped chicken wire around the lower third of the inside of the coop, and also used it to close in either end. We had to take extra care to cover the sharp ends of the chicken wire to protect the greenhouse film.

predator-proofing-modifications-hoop-house-chicken-coopPredator-Proofing Modifications Needed

One of the downsides to living in a forest of oak trees where nuts are abundant is that rodents are plentiful, and as a result, so are weasels. In hindsight, lining the bottom of the coop with the same 1×2 fencing material that I used for the fencing would have offered better protection from these chicken predators. Or I could have dug a trench all the way around the base of the coop and laid 1/2-inch wire mesh at least 12 inches down. As it was, we lost 3 birds and Paul spent an afternoon digging a deep trench inside the coop so that he could stretch a length of 1×2-inch wire mesh along the wall to keep out a determined weasel.

So far he has not been able to get back into the coop.

Hoop-Coop Does the Job!

egg-production-in-a-hoop-houseThere were a few hiccups along the way, but now that it’s done I’m very happy with my hoop-coop. The Runamuk flock are exposed to sunlight all day─as soon as the sun begins to lighten the sky, til the very end of the day when the darkness grows, my chickens are receiving 100% of the available light. I don’t need to add lights to stimulate their production and since I’m not going to market right now, I’m just allowing them to produce eggs at whatever rate comes naturally.

hoop-house-in-snowWe live in Maine. We experience serious winter conditions here. Just before New Years’ we received 18-inches of snow that put the hoop-coop to the test, followed by another good dose of snow a few days later and so far the coop remains standing there stolidly. It sheds the snow well, and as an added precaution we have a soft-bristled push-broom that we keep in the coop so that we can push up on the center of the coop-ceiling to make the snow slide off. Easy.

chicken-hoop-house
A deep layer of pine shavings and straw, mix with the chicken poo to create a mass of decomposing material that naturally lends heat to the coop.

The coop is warmed by the sun, in addition to the deep-litter bedding method we’re using, which generates additional heat as the decomposition process happens right beneath our feet. Even when it’s freeze-your-face-off cold outside, the chickens are relatively comfortable inside the sanctity of their hoop-coop. We’ve only turned on the heat lamp on the nights when temperatures are well below zero and we’ve had no frozen combs or wattles whatsoever.

Ventilation of the coop was a concern, but simply leaving the door open, or cracked─has (so far) provided sufficient ventilation for the birds and farmers.

A Great Asset

As we get closer to spring I have every intention of putting together another hoop-structure in order to have space for all the seedlings I’ll be growing for the 2017 growing season. The chickens will get moved from their current location and their winter hoop-coop will house my tomato plants this season. I envision yet another hoop-house for growing greens and carrots into the winter─just like Eliot Coleman, but on a smaller scale mainly meant to feed my family.

It cost me $310 to put this coop together. A third of that expense was in the greenhouse film, but I have enough of that left over to create several more such structures. I really see these hoop-structures as the key to the infrastructure issue many beginning farmers are coping with. Quick and easy to put together, with the biggest part of the expense in the tufflite greenhouse film, and able to be used for a wide variety of purposes on the farm or homestead. Cover it with a tarp instead and you’ve got a sheep-shed or a tool-shed. Hell, I’d even consider living in one if it meant I could continue farming!

Hoop-houses are a great asset, but you don’t have to take my word for it! Try it yourself!

Recommended Resources

Sam’s Hoop-Coop Step-by-Step Instructions – complimentary instructions for you to build your own versatile hoop-house structure for use as livestock shelter, growing space, or other creative uses on your farm or homestead.

Tufflite Greenhouse Film: Tuff Stuff! – Check out my review of the Tufflite IV greenhouse film.

Low-Cost, Versatile Hoop Houses – Mother Earth News

High Tunnels – a great pdf resource from the University of Vermont Center for Sustainable Agriculture.

Hoophouse & Quick hoops crops – Good information from GrowingforMarket.com listing the types of crops that perform best in hoop-house and season-extension conditions.

Winter Vegetables in Your Hoop House – more details about growing crops into the winter in your hoop-house. From Mother Earth News.

Make a Hoop-House to Extend Your Growing Season – via the HomesteadingHippy.com.

Making progress

Somehow it’s not hard to believe that it’s already almost mid-September. Perhaps other farmers feel the same sense of urgency that I do–from the moment that bare soil is exposed in the spring til the morning you wake to find the first killing frost upon the ground–there’s a sense of urgency–a sense that time is short and precious.

After 12 years working toward a farmish lifestyle, I think that’s probably the number one thing that I’ve learned. Time is short and we need to make the most of it. It’s a concept that has permeated my entire life.

I knew this was going to be a rough year–all things considered. But Jim Murphy’s farm was my saving grace. I don’t think I need to go on about how much I adore the place, but even miracles take a lot of work and for a few weeks there I was scared that I wouldn’t be able to pull it all off.

A farm–like any other business–takes a while to begin generating any significant amount of income. Runamuk does bring in some funds through sales of eggs and soaps and salves at the Madison Farmers’ Market, as well as through my work writing and editing, and from the workshops and bee-schools I teach, but it is not enough yet to cover the farmers’ living expenses. And with the busy season in the call center at Johnny’s Selected Seeds behind us, my hours were waning, so I took another seasonal job at the North Star Orchard in Madison.

in the big cooler at north star orchard
This is one of three large coolers in the barn at North Star Orchards.

For those who are not local, North Star is a small family owned and operated orchard that produces about 20,000 bushels of apples annually. One-third of those are sold directly to customers either from their farm-store or through pick-your-own activities. The other two-thirds of the apples are sold through Hannaford stores in central and western Maine. The farm sits on a hillside overlooking the Kennebec River and from some vantage points in the orchard there are fabulous views of our western mountains. You can click here to check out their website if you’re curious to learn more.

I could go on about the Dimmock family and what it’s like to work at the orchard–and I will, lol–but not today. That’s not what this post is about. Suffice it to say that it’s interesting work with good people, I’m learning more about yet another type of agriculture and I’m happy with it. Until Runamuk is making enough to sustain itself and me too, I need to work off the farm.

bronze heritage breed turkey
This is Thanksgiving the turkey–he is not named for dinner, but because he has been spared that fate!

We are making progress though. The bills are getting caught up, which is always a good feeling, my bee-school with the SAD 54 adult-education program is a go, and I’ve managed to sell a few spots in various on-farm workshops. Two spots were traded for a number of birds–18 chickens, 4 heritage-breed bronze turkeys, and an african grey goose named Michael. We added these birds to our existing flock in hopes of increasing egg production–there is high demand for locally produced eggs at our farmers’ market and myself and the other farmer there who sells eggs have not been able to satisfy the demand.

With the addition of so many new birds I was compelled to readdress the housing situation for the flock. The hoop-coop was full to capacity after we took in 4 laying hens from a co-worker at Johnny’s, and a prowling skunk had already devoured the 6 little chicks that had come with my broody hen, so the flock was a little wary of the structure–it was time to move them into the barn.

the barn at runamukMoving the birds to the barn meant another construction project, since the old barn is set up for dairy cows, with the wooden stalls and the old metal piping running along the ceiling. The old metal waterers and the old chains the farmer used to tie his cows to while they chewed hay and were milked are still in place. It’s a solid structure with rugged timber beams and a massive sliding barn door; like most old and neglected barns she needs some repairs, some updating, and some paint–but this old barn has lots of life left in her, and loads of history and character.

I bought a few two-by-fours, scavenged doors and hardware from around the farm, and my partner and I proceeded to divide the south-facing milking room into 3 sections simply by erecting walls of chicken wire. The back two “rooms” were suddenly chicken coops with the addition of roosts–saplings we cut from the forest and screwed across the tops of the cow-stalls. We brought the nesting boxes from the hoop-coop and moved our chickens into the barn under the cover of night. The new laying hens, turkeys and the goose arrived about a week later and we moved them into the second coop. I hope that the third space we created will house sheep next winter, but for now it is just storage space.updates to this old barnIt’s going on three weeks now though, since we added the new birds to the mix and while I had expected a drop in production in all of the birds after being moved and integrated–I had hoped production would be in full swing by now and I’m just not seeing the increase in egg-collection that I need. To make matters worse, I’m beginning to suspect that we may have an egg-eater in the flock…something that’s going to have to be dealt with in short order!

birds in the barn
For the winter the flock will have this fenced exercise yard, but the plan is to invest in the electric poultry netting so that they can be on pasture through the summer months.

barn updatesThe birds are happy with the accommodations though–they like the roosts we put in, but they prefer to sleep on the metal dairy piping. They’re getting plenty of treats and goodies from the garden in the way of bugs and veggies–and while the garden has been something of a challenge this year, I’ve still managed to produce some quality vegetables and am working to preserve the harvest. The potatoes have been dug and are curing in the garage before they go into the root cellar for storage; the tomatoes are in the freezer awaiting the day that I will turn them into sauce, and this weekend I will process the green beans.

It may be painstakingly slow, but Runamuk is gaining ground once again and I am pleased with that. The stress of the financial crunch has been addressed, and our attention has turned toward winter preparations–it wont be long before we wake up to that first frost on the ground! Stay tuned folks!