The Chickestoga, our new mobile chicken coop

R opening the Chickestoga, a mobile chicken coop built from a trailer kit and some livestock panels

Instructions and construction pictures below, after the story on why we built such a contraption and how it’s working for us.

We started keeping chickens for meat this year. The goal is more to add fertility to our soil; the meat is a welcome but secondary yield. Chickens have done an amazing amount of work for us already in the orchards. If we had an easy market for eggs, I would have added more layers, but we don’t. And meat birds spend their winter in the freezer, not eating sacks of organic feed. As short term summer residents, their housing needs are minimal compared to the year-round residents: something dry, a place to roost and protection from predators.

Our first batch of meat birds came out of the brooder into this three sided shelter, made out of four 2x4s, two livestock panels we had lying around, and a 12×16′ tarp. Total new household expense was less than $30 (the panels run about $60 a piece, but we already had them). We made a 4′ circle out of concrete reinforcing mesh and stuck some branches through it for a roost. Technically, the shelter is portable. I can drag it on my own, just not easily. We protected the flock with an electronet fence. The whole thing worked quite well until it came to move the flock. With no way to contain the birds, we moved them from one part of the property to another by stretching out electronet in the direction we were headed, moving the coop, then moving the net again. And when it came to slaughter day, we had a great time catching birds since we couldn’t shut them up.

What we did learn after our first home-grown chicken is that they are tasty! And that if we ever wanted to transport them to the new orchard down the road, we were going to have to build them a deluxe version of the mobile coop. They need to be fully enclosed for the transport, but on wheels. Typical chicken tractors are meant to be dragged a tractor length or two every day. By the time we moved them a block and half, we might as well set up the killing cones and process them at their destination. And while we can push the first layer coop I built across the pasture, it isn’t road-travel worthy. A towable coop is what we need, and that’s what we built.

The base is an 8′ trailer kit from Harbor Freight. Once we assembled it, we framed up the base for one of our livestock panel shelters right on the trailer bed. Since the chicken wire floor has to support some meaty birds, we added floor joists to the bottom frame. We added end panels and a door so the chickens stay put when we move the coop. Our neighbors said it looks like a Conestoga wagon, so we dubbed it the Chickestoga.

We learned one lesson the hard way – chicken wire is not raccoon proof. When we transferred the second batch of chickies into the Chickestoga, they hadn’t learned to roost yet, so we spread out some feed bags on the chicken wire for them to rest on until their instincts kicked in. Well, a raccoon figured out the second night how to poke its evil little paw up into the chicken wire, nabbed a chickie and bit its head off through the floor. I heard the commotion and drove it off, and it circled back two more times. Finally, at 3 in the morning, R and I pushed the Chickestoga into the garage (we had designed it to fit but hadn’t tested it, had a 1/2 inch to spare). When we brought the coop out the next morning, we redeployed it within an electronet paddock. It took some persuading to get the chickies to go back in the next few nights! Now that they use the roosts, the raccoons can’t reach them, but the chickies are still under double protection at night, since we are putting the geese in the paddock for the night anyway. Do not be deceived by their sweet little faces, raccoons are killing machines.

Other than the raccoon incident, the Chickestoga is working great. There isn’t any bedding to change, we just move the coop to wherever we want the fertility. We have 23 birds using it now. The recommendation is a foot of roost space if they only sleep in their shelter, and they certainly have that, although they all seem to huddle up in one corner anyway. We hang the food and water inside to keep the geese from bothering it, so the chickies go in and out all day; sometimes they hang out on the ground underneath for shade. Next year, I think I will spread a tarp on the floor and hang an electric heat lamp inside and see if it will work as a brooder after the chicks are a week or so old. If we wait until the weather is warmer, it should work, and we can always wheel them into the garage at night if needed. I like the idea of the birds not having to stress over moving digs.

Is it frugal? Even though the trailer base wasn’t cheap, it meets my definition of frugal, in that it is pure function designed to last. My first coop is heavy, and we already had to upgrade the wheels to foam filled monsters that would actually travel across the rough pasture. One person can roll the Chickestoga by hand. And while the cattle panels are about $100, have you priced plywood or OSB lately? You’d probably use 8-10 sheets to sheathe and roof a 7′x8′ coop. The other savings is in bedding, both in avoiding the cost and eliminating the work of shoveling it out at the end of the season (we use deep litter on all our other critters to great success). If the droppings build up during use and once the birds go to the freezer, we can just hose it out and spray some bleach on it at the end to disinfect it for next time.

Things we want to improve: the trailer kit did not come with a jack; we need to install one. We also need to add some kind of flip down rear bracing so the wind can’t tip the unit backwards when it is parked. The ramp needs an attachment point, right now it’s just balanced on some logs. If I were throwing money around, I’d buy a trailer hand dolly. A raccoon-preventative upgrade would be to use hardware cloth on the floor and sides, but that would add to the cost and the cleaning job.

Could we house laying hens in it? Yes, but it would add complexity to the build. If I were going to, I’d make the lower part of the end wall (closest to the hitch) out of plywood and mount laying boxes with outside hatches. I’m not sure how I’d support it, since the sleeves we put the uprights into aren’t in the right place. It would take some figuring. Our layers winter in the hoop house, so we could make one work here, but I wouldn’t want to keep birds in the Chickestoga over the winter in our climate. It’s dry enough in the rain, but when it drops to below zero, I want to give them a little more shelter. But all my animals are spoiled. It probably would be fine, especially if some straw bedding were tossed in and the open end was pointed out of the wind. The Chickestoga works just fine for the meat chickens and that project ends long before winter sets in. If someone tries it, I’d like to know how it works.

Since the build depends on the trailer base, I’m not going to give step-by-step instructions and measurements. What follows are some photos and notes of how we built our first Chickestoga. I suspect it won’t be our last-maybe we could house a few Thanksgiving turkeys in one of these. R will be glad to know it’s too late in the season to start that project.

Base built to fit the trailer frame. Width (parallel to axle) is 8'. Length of base is 7'. The frame is temporarily screwed to short pieces of 2x4 in the manufacturer's sleeves provided to install trailer walls

Base built to fit the trailer frame. Width (parallel to axle) is 8'. Length of base is 7'. The frame is temporarily screwed to short pieces of 2x4 in the manufacturer's sleeves provided to install trailer walls.

The trailer base came from Harbor Freight. Anything under 8′ does not have to be licensed in our state. This craft is under 8′. The kit comes with a full electrical package. We figured the chickens would only fool with and destroy the wires, so we didn’t bother installing it. The idea of trailer wiring repair is hideous under any circumstances, but under a used traveling chicken coop, it ain’t going to happen so why bother? The maximum distance traveled will be a quarter mile down a dirt road. Give me a ticket.

Putting the trailer kit together was easier than a simple farm wagon kit we had assembled earlier this summer. It took most of a rainy afternoon to do.

We cut chicken wire and secured it on the base before installing the panels, which are ready to be arched.

We cut chicken wire and secured it on the base before installing the panels, which are ready to be arched.

I bought a 150′ roll of 3′ wide chicken wire because that’s what the local hardware store had in stock and we have other uses for leftovers. We probably used most of it, or would have, but a friend gave us a roll of 4′ wide in the middle of the project, and we used that to cover the panels with 2 laps instead of three.

Three long, 3′ wide, overlapping pieces cover the bottom and end walls. I didn’t make a picture, but we screwed down lengths of 2×2 where the chicken wire made a 90 ° bend at the front and back. The blocking wood let us pull the fencing much tighter than we could have with just staples.

It took some experimentation to figure out how to safely arch two panel. What worked for us was to lay one panel onto the frame and nail in one edge, then flip it out 180 ° out of the way. We nailed in the second panel’s first edge on the same side. This position is shown in the photo above. The chicken wire was a nuisance while working with the panels.

Installing the last of the fencing nails to secure the panel

Installing the last of the fencing nails to secure the panel under close goose supervision. Note the list of the arch to the side. The rear uprights will resolve that.

Once one edge of both panels were nailed down, we carefully flexed the second one into position, secured it temporarily with some cable ties. We attached a rope to the first panel’s free end, and used that to pull the panel over the arch of the one already in place (have cutters ready if you need to remove a temporary cable tie to slip the second end in place.) I don’t even want to think about these panels springing out of position under travel, so an excess of u-shaped, barbed fencing nails and cable ties hold it in place.

I thought about covering the panels with chicken wire before arching them, but in the end, it was easier to do it afterwards. More cable ties, staples and blocking boards hold it in place. The aviation snips are awesomely overkill for cutting chicken wire.

Two 4' wide livestock panels

Cable tying the panels together adds a surprising amount of rigidity

Replace the temporary braces with door frame uprights.

Replace the temporary braces with door frame uprights.

We wanted the Chickestoga to fit into the garage if possible, so we compressed the panels as much as we could when we installed the end uprights. It fit! Barely. The door itself is made from 2x2s, field measured to fit after the frame was installed.

Tools: hammer, heavy snips, surgical shears, cable ties in two sizes, cable tie tightener, staple gun

An aside on the tools we used: R buys cable ties from Deer Busters because they are incredibly strong and unlike any imitation at a big box store. The surgical shears come from Lee Valley. Lee Valley calls them clamshell scissors because they are intended to open those awful anti-shoplifting plastic packages, but they are extremely useful around the homestead. I buy them by the handful every now and then because they are cheap, safe and will cut the neck off a chicken but won’t poke a hole in my pocket while I carry them or my thigh if I take a tumble. R also likes these aviation snips well enough that we have a second set in the hoop house. They are tough! And they are about the only thing that can easily cut through a Deerbuster cable tie. The cable tie tool came with our Deerbuster fence kit. Amazon sells a similar one. The staple gun is nearly an antique, made out of genuine aircraft aluminum, or so it says on the body.

For the roosts, we used the same sleeves to hold the uprights. The base is secured to the front roost

For the roosts, we used the same sleeves to hold the uprights. The base is secured to the roost uprights as well as at the rear door frame. Slate wanted to help once the geese left.

I did all the interior decorating before wrapping the end walls with chicken wire. I gathered some downed cottonwood branches for the roosts. There’s no easy way to cover an arched shape with a rectangular piece of chicken wire. I just tugged and pulled and cable tied it in place. I did give special attention to the corners: they are stitched up with thin wire (the piece that is sandwiched into the chicken wire roll, in fact) so that there were no chickie-sized gaps. I didn’t fuss much about the panel covering since the tarp would cover any sins of omission. The only fiddly bit was the piece above the door. We tipped the trailer up and down as needed to work on the uppermost parts.

Tarped up and ready to roll.

Tarped up and ready to roll.

A 16′x12′ heavy duty tarp covers the Chickestoga. Spreading it out without trashing it on stray loose bits of chicken wire is a two-person job. More cable ties and two lengths of rope crossed over the arched hoops hold it in place.

The panels are strong enough to hang a feeder and waterer. We use a 5 gallon bucket with a Gamma seal lid and chicken nipples for the waterer. The lid became necessary when one genius pullet decided to use the bucket as a roost. A bungee cord holds the door open during the day, a carabiner in the latch holds it shut at night.

And that’s it, a pretty simple weekend DIY project to build a mobile chicken coop. If you build one, I’d love to hear about it. If you have questions, let me know and we’ll figure it out.

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Cheap utility farm shelters from livestock panels

Ameracauna hen from this year's first batch of chicks raised on pasture, watched over by Apollo, the Jersey Giant rooster.

Ameracauna hen from this year's first batch of chicks raised on pasture, watched over by Apollo, the Jersey Giant rooster.

Frugal is a word I fully grasp, so when it came time to make some rain and shade shelters for our animals, it wasn’t going to be elaborate. But it wasn’t going to be flimsy either – goats will destroy anything they can get their mouths around. And they needed to be somewhat portable, because we want to move the goats around to eat what needs eating. I saw somewhere on the interwebs that folks were making chicken coops out of livestock panels, and realized we could turn this into a general purpose idea.

 

The second batch of chicks using a mobile shelter for shade. on this version, we overlapped the panels but did not trim down the base 2x4. The excess timber works as an additional grab point when moving the structure and a convenient anchor point for sand bags, missing in this photo.

The second batch of chicks using a mobile shelter for shade. on this version, we overlapped the panels but did not trim down the base 2x4. The excess timber works as an additional grab point when moving the structure and a convenient anchor point for sand bags, missing in this photo.

The basic plan is to build a rectangle out of four 2×4 boards and two 4′ x 16′ livestock panels. For this application, the cheaper ones are better, easier to bend. The panels overlap by a foot to add rigidity, so I cut two of the boards to 7′, the other two are just standard 8′ lengths. We add some corner braces to counteract the tension of the panels. Fencing nails (barbed and shaped like a U) secure the panels to the inside of the frame. We cable tie the two panels together then add a tarp. A 12×16 tarp will make a three sided cover to the ground; the goats got a 6×8 tarp that they couldn’t reach to destroy. Because we are dealing with winds that regularly exceed 40mph, we add some guy ropes over the tarp, which adds some rigidity to the structure as well.

The lip created by the way the 2x4s are butted together gives a more solid base for the livestock panel to push against.

The lip created by the way the 2x4s are butted together gives a more solid base for the livestock panel to push against.

In our winds, lest we simply launch a wonky and dangerous parasail kite craft across the orchard, once in place we weight it down with whatever’s available. Sandbags would be ideal, but we have used large rocks and buckets of water. If we really wanted to permanently locate it somewhere, I could imagine securing it with something like duckbill anchors, but I like the flexibility of being able to move it wherever I need it.

Now that we have a couple of these around, I see no reason to produce anything more costly to keep things and critters out of the weather. In fact, our next project is to build two longer versions, at least 3 panels long, to shelter hay and firewood. And in my next installment, I’ll show how we used one to create a deluxe mobile chicken coop, a contraption we call the Chickestoga.

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The Ugly Duckling Phase of Permaculture

The American Buff geese we added this year flap and run but nobody gets more than a couple inches off the ground on these flights.

The American Buff geese we added this year flap and run but nobody gets more than a couple inches off the ground on these flights.

Nobody talks about the the ugly duckling phase of getting a permaculture system established, but I don’t think we can be the only ones who are fighting it. Or more properly, trying to grow out of it. When the bindweed is is the lushest thing in the future food forest. When the irrigation system takes months longer to figure out than planned and the watering by hand is getting really old. When a raccoon instructs you on the weaknesses in your chicken defense strategy.

And yet the trees are growing.

The books actually dance around this ugly duckling period by recommending that one start small and expand outward. Sound advice, unless you already have 300 custom grafts on order when you find a model (Miracle Farm in Quebec) that helps you figure out a way to permaculturate your orchard. (Yes, I made up that word, it sounded better than permculturize.) There is no starting small when the trees are coming regardless.

Some permaculture-crazy college-aged kids from permies.com dropped by this May as we were planting the last of the trees. I’m sure we did not make a good impression. A bunch of leafless 3 foot high trees is not what a food forest is supposed to look like. The fecund forests of many layers pictured in the books take years to mature; we haven’t gotten through the first one. We will need to propagate thousands of plants to do the intermediate plantings. Until we get our water situation sorted, our understory planting consists of alfalfa, wild asparagus and weeds. We have made plenty of mistakes (I should have dumped a hundred pounds of clover seed down last winter at least), even so the framework is in the ground.

Nevertheless, the trees are growing.

Because of our naive belief that we could easily find guidance on how to switch over to a modern irrigation system, the stop-gap measure is me watering the Bluebird orchard from a 275 gallon IBC on a trailer. The result is that three months later, I spend about 25 hours a week pouring water out of a hose. The month of June is our hottest, driest month and it seemed I couldn’t keep up. I said to someone that if I hadn’t overcommitted, I wouldn’t know where my limits are. I have pushed up against them so many times this summer, they have stretched me and sometimes bounced me back on my butt. Don’t overthink it. Fill the tank, empty the tank, weed around the trees, listen to podcasts and audiobooks. Try not to think about the failures too much.

Despite ourselves, the trees are growing.

The July day the monsoons started was when I knew we could make it and not lose the trees. Of course, not everything has survived. The mainframe of the system is doing shockingly well, but we lost half of the plants in the fedge. That will get replanted when we can get it on the irrigation system. The 30 grape vines are down to 28, a satisfactory survival rate as far as I am concerned for varieties that haven’t been tested here.

We had to declare an amnesty on the annual garden. I just haven’t had the energy to keep up and it was drowning in weeds and sunflowers. The corn we grew last year is barely half the height it should be. Last weekend R went in with loppers and assaulted the larger weeds, to the delight of the geese, who devour entire sunflower plants. But we are going to have to do the farmers’ market walk of shame and buy tomatoes to put up for winter.

Every day, the trees are growing.

This summer is only going to happen once in my life, one in which I have time to count native bees and butterflies while I water. I saw the ladybugs appear on the alfalfa in May and the hawk moths arrive this week. Goldfinches are all over the place now. I noticed the cottontails squeezing through the deer fence and hiding in the alfalfa. I keep looking but haven’t seen a snake yet. Thunderstorms build up over Boulder Mountain and it starts to get hot. Wild sunflowers burst onto the scene all at once. My neighbors wave as they drive by. Sometimes they even stop to chat.

Yesterday we irrigated the Kingbird orchard. I haven’t spent much time there observing this summer like I should. Holy cow, there are trees out there that are 10′ tall! Two years ago those trees looked like the puny things I am watering every day in the other parcel. The bird life in the established orchard is already changing-this year we’ve seen woodland species like orioles and tanagers and grosbeaks moving through, displacing the meadowlarks and goldfinches. And we ate our first homegrown apple this week, a variety called Pristine. It was awesome. We have a few Redfields and one Calville de Blanc coming along too. After the late freeze this year, we are grateful to have any fruit at all.

I know that by Halloween, this drama of the establishment year will be over. The Torrey irrigation canal will shut down for winter, we will cut the alfalfa alleys one last time and overseed it with something for early spring soil building. Next year the new trees will really take off. We can spend some time shaping the understory. We will have tomatoes next year. The spreading limbs of mature trees will change the ecology in due time. The ugly duckling stage won’t last forever. Let’s just not pretend that all permaculture systems start out as swans.

Get the trees in the ground, where they can start to grow.

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Organizing seeds

Bead container used to organize seeds

Love my seeds. They make my food. Hate, hate, hate the little paper packets out in the garden. They spill, blow over, get wet, and otherwise lack field-worthiness. But the paper packets are compact, easy to stack and contain a ton of useful information that I don’t want to discard.

Things like tomatoes and squash get planted once a year, so sorting through those packets is just an annoyance. For the succession plantings, it is a pain that leads to procrastination, which leads to not enough greenery a couple months later. Honestly, if it takes longer to get out the seeds and put them away than to plant another dozen lettuces, I’m going to put it off. How to organize this mess today so we have something to eat in August?

After many failed experiments, I have settled on something that works for me. I use a plastic photo organizer to file our main stock of seeds in their paper packets. I cut down some card stock to make dividers, like tomatoes, brassicas, squash (it’s not perfect: does kale belong under “greens” or “brassicas?”). The plastic bin lives in the refrigerator.

For the succession crops like greens, carrots and beets, I bought this bead organizer at a craft store, probably JoAnn’s. The lid comes completely off each little vial so it’s easy to pour seeds from the packet to load, but there’s also a flip top that lets out just a few seeds at a time and stays attached to the vial so I don’t drop it in the dirt.

Sometimes I dump in an entire packet of seeds at once, sometimes just an amount I think I’ll use in the next few weeks, because this container doesn’t get stowed in the frig as reliably as the larger bin. Heat is not a friend to a seed’s longevity. Some of my seeds are five years old and germinate just fine, which I attribute to keeping them dry and cool.

The vials can go out in the garden in a pocket if I just want to plant one or two things, but the whole organizer fits in a cargo pocket too. I labeled the vials with some removable tape. The seeds are protected from getting wet, and I am much less likely to waste a bunch to spillage. The rest of my seeds stay more stable because they don’t make as many trips out of the frig. But mostly it’s just dang convenient not to fiddle with the packets.

It’s a simple thing that keeps things streamlined, but it works. We have way too much going on right now to do things the hard way.

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My life as Alfred Hitchcock movie

American Buff geese tapping at the door

tap, tap, tap

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