That is to say, we now have a flock of full-fledged chickens on our hands. And it’s about time I report back on their progress.
This is what their pen looks like. It is indeed the Salatin-style pasture pen we were shooting for, but we’ve had to make some minor modifications to adapt our version of it to allow it to be moved daily by a single mortal. Namely me. (The Salatin original needs only one person to move, but uses a special, custom made dolly to lift up the back end. Ours is also heavier with the substitution of steel siding we had on hand for the called-for aluminum sheeting he uses.) That sucker is h-e-a-v-y, but ripping open some PVC pipes and securing them under the front and back bottom edges did the trick, allowing it to slide much easier. There’s a giant rope, which you can not see in this picture, that I stand within each morning and heave with every ounce of strength I can muster, pulling the whole thing forward in a somewhat jerky, but chicken-paced manner. There’s a lot of bodybuilder-style grunting involved; to say that I have to put my whole ass into it is a bit of an understatement. It’s in fact one of the newest fitness classes offered at the Five Green Acres health club, and I’m finding that it suits me well.
The entire pen, save the bottom, is surrounded in chicken wire, with an outer layer of steel siding covering over half of the structure, providing shelter from the elements. We found that removing the bottom panel in the back gave us the opportunity to make sure that all the chicks were safely marching forward as we moved the pen each day. The fence you see surrounding the area is one of our portable electric fences that delineate the pasture into sheep paddocks. We didn’t intend to keep the chicks within the fence; the pen should be secure enough on its own. Perhaps it was that Saturday night excitement a few weeks ago that inspired the double-protection of the fence, that night when we both jumped out of bed at the sound of raccoons outside, tore out to the pen at a breakneck speed to defend the flock, but found nothing amiss. Twice. The pasture is not uniformly level, of course, being pasture and not a bull-dozed parking lot, which encourages occasional gaps underneath the sides here and there and would make the flock vulnerable to predators if they weren’t properly blocked off. But while the raccoons, etc. may not make it through the electric fence to take advantage of those gaps, don’t think that the chicks have any qualms about escaping through those gullies and walking right through the conveniently-sized spacing of the net fence and parading about. I had to don my hat and lasso and call in my Best Chick-Wrangling Girl for backup to catch a dozen of those escapees at dusk on Saturday night. The good thing about chickens, though, is that they’re ‘chicken.’ They’re skittish and fearful and know full-well that they’re the preferred dinner for a whole host of species, so while they may break loose of their pen, they don’t actually go very far. Dusk also finds them wanting to roost for the night and they would have likely roosted right on top of their pen had we not wrangled them inside, whisking them out of reach of owls and other nighttime predators not deterred by a perimeter fence. So we take special care now in blocking up any gaps in the pen with whatever we have lying around. The upturned feed pan is doing just that in the photo above.
Here you can see the edge of the already-traversed pasture. The tall grass is Before Sheep and Chicks, the completely mowed-down, newly sprouting is After. It is immensely satisfying to see before our eyes the transformation of pure vegetation into healthy, vibrant chickens and sheep, invigorating the pasture with a healthy pruning and plenty of nutrient-rich manure. But the real harmony comes in the proximity of the chicks to the sheep. It just so happens that the chicks are able to keep up with the sheep as we rotate them all through fresh pasture. The chick pen moves a pen-length a day, closely following the sheep, who eat a 4 or 5 pen-length paddock in about 4 or 5 days. Sometimes the chicken pen is enclosed within the same paddock as the sheep, making nice company for both, sometimes it is right beside it. The real beauty, though, is that the sheep lead the way and chew the very tall grass down to a height accessible to the chicks. Trailing the chicks behind the sheep and their manure also makes for optimal worm and parasite control, allowing the chicks to pick through and harvest larvae before they have a chance to hatch, larvae that they’re not at all susceptible to. It’s ideal for the sheep, and ideal for the chickens, who thrive on the protein-rich addition to their diet. It’s such a harmonious and satisfyingly circle-of-life ecosystem that I almost expect a harp melody to play in the background, completing the pastoral idyll.
Some unfinished business:
The Super-Glam top was indeed a crack-smoking pipe dream. It remains almost at the same level of progress as shown in the last photo. My crampy wrists are happy for the break and are thinking about resuming at a more leisurely pace.