So the project to create the “ultimate” mobile working holiday home for chooks was born. Nothing like a challenging project to get me going. This one was especially interesting, as it was about applying the permaculture principles to work with nature, and to integrate the chooks, rather than segregate them. Besides, we can definitely do with more nitrogen and natural manure in our soil-building approach – how much better if the providers can also help us manage the vegetable beds and gift us with healthy fresh organic eggs too!
This also addressed another conundrum I had. We do want big eggs, but we don’t want too heavy ducks and chickens to free-range at Dreamland, as they would probably demolish the delicate parts of the forest garden. In fact, most edible forest gardeners I’ve met keep their chooks away from the actual forest garden, either separately in a big run or on more open pasture. So this gives us the opportunity to get some heavy scrubbing big egg laying hens for the mobile working holiday home, and then we can get lighter less impactful free rangers for Dreamland.
So I drew the concept design while I was crook with the flu, and at the first opportunity that I felt well enough, off I went with the little trailer to the big green shed to get the necessary supplies. Still sneezing and coughing I started construction in the shed. It was indoors, wasn’t it?
There were some interesting implementation challenges, which a nice neat little concept design doesn’t always point out:
- We want ample room for the working ladies, no cramped up little cage – it must feel like free-range.
- It has to include sleeping quarters as well as laying quarters, with facilities for additional food (if required), and of course water.
- It has to be portable, as we want to move it from one vegetable bed to the other as they finish off their work on one bed.
- I wanted to re-use the fine trellis wire we took off around the grape vines when we put the big nets on.
- And of course, the big green shed – even though they have a massive range – doesn’t have everything in the required lengths. (Of course I can saw things shorter, but some lengths are too short from the start, especially if your vegetable beds are 6.1m by 1.3m.)
So the final implementation was done in 4 parts (not in 3 parts as initially envisioned):
- One section of 2.7m, half covered, half netted, to provide enough protection against the elements, with roosting places for them to sleep on. (More about this section later.)
- One section of 2.7m, only netted, with a large opening flap.
- One little inlay section of 610mm, with a side flap, with hooks for hanging a waterer and a feeder.
- A detachable nesting box with two 30mm x 30mm x 45mm high spaces.
So why this peculiar design? Well the one part is straightforward – the nesting box is a bit heavy, and it juts out quite uncomfortably for carrying the whole long section, so I had to be able to move it separately. The little 610mm inlay came out of practical necessity. I managed to get nice thin balau wood used for decking, at a price similar to the same dimensions in pine – so I could keep the structure light weight and it didn’t need treatment either, thus saving on varnishing time and costs. But the balau only came in 2.7m lengths… hence the curious design. But I think in retrospect it gives a bit more flexibility to compensate for our raised beds, which aren’t 100% level through the joins in the hardwood.
So, I wonder, is there a Guinness record for the largest portable chicken coop? I’ve got big plans where this thing is going to migrate to, all over the property.
With all the off-cuts I managed to also construct a little “porta-box”, which we will use to fetch little pullets to start off with, and have it handy if maybe ever we need to isolate a chicken for some or other reason.
The design had to be flexible as I adapted it to what works practically. (The term “winging it” comes to mind.) Well I think we got that down OK. We can even, at a push, connect the sections in a different order, if we wanted to configure it as two separate zones over the same vegetable box.
The balau wood is incredibly brittle. It cracks if you look at it! So I learnt a hard lesson first with the screws, then with the tacks I wanted to staple the net with. Eventually I pre-drilled every single hole, I screwed all the nets in place and I made sure that I didn’t over-pressure any screw going in. OK, I have to admit, there are three or four pieces with cracks in… little cracks!
I spent a lot of time clamping the sections before I screwed them, in order to try and get it square. I used all kinds of tricks using the builder’s level on the wood I clamped to the workbench, both vertically and horizontally. Other times I used two large 90-degree angled brackets that I had left over from a previous project. This all seemed to work as most of the component frames and boxes came out pretty square. I had to pull two of them square with angled struts, less than 10mm each, but I needed the angled struts to make it stronger anyway.
I had one serious design flaw however. In my initial implementation, the carbonate sheets I used for covering didn’t go any further than the back of the big section. Hence the laying boxes might have gotten soaked in a downpour, as I couldn’t figure out how to make the hinged cover of the nesting boxes waterproof. So I had to remove the two half sections of roof and replace them with full sections that overlap and protect the nesting boxes. As a side benefit, it will also provide more shade during our blistering hot summers, over the nesting boxes as well as over a bit more of the enclosed area. (In addition it made it much easier for me to varnish the marine ply at the back of the enclosure while the roof was off.)
Where to next?
I thought the next steps were easy. Decide on a breed, locate a breeder close by, collect some pullets (baby hens, that is), tame and raise them and then set them “free” to work. It turns out that it is way more complicated… What this space for developments!