How We Let Our Chickens Free Range Without Total Freedom

How We Let Our Chickens Free Range Without Total Freedom (3)We all know the many benefits of raising free range chickens. But raising free range chickens on our homestead with our berry patch has produced many struggles. We realized that we need to get creative if we want to reap all of the benefits of raising free range chickens without them destroying our berries in the process.

The Plan

Last summer Berry Man and I discussed how we could fence in several areas for the chickens and move them from time to time. We knew we would really need the chickens to work the new land we cleared to get the soil structure built up and ready to plant in the future.

This plan was going to be very costly, but we thought we would just bite off a little bit at a time, as our time and finances allowed, adding new areas for the chickens to move to once they had cleared an area.

That idea sounded good until they cleared our first area in about a month. Then several learned how to fly over the fence which defeated the whole purpose of a fence in the first place. We knew we needed to try something else.How We Let Our Chickens Free Range Without Total Freedom (1)

Back to the Drawing Board

Since it was winter, we decided that we would just let the chickens out in the entire yard and berry fields. The plants were all dormant, so we figured they could not do much damage. However, we were wrong.

The first place they seemed to want to go is straight to the blueberries. Chickens love to scratch and find bugs under loose grass, so the straw around our blueberries was a prime attraction for them. They scratched the soil bare around the plants. This straw provides the insulation the bushes need to survive the winter. We ended up spending way too much time and energy trying to keep them out of certain areas or our land.

We also spent too much time cleaning chicken poop off the sidewalks. Berry Pup was wanting to go outside just to search for chicken poop treats. Yes…Berry Pup is a poop eater…not exactly the most pleasant thing in world, but we still love her!

Trying Something New

Our current plan is to try to fence the chickens out rather than fence them in. We know a few will fly over or walk around the fence from time to time, but we redirect a few rather than trying to control the entire flock.

First we took the existing fence around their house and extended one end to connect our west porch to the chicken house. We extended from the chicken house southwest as close to the woods as we could get. Although the chickens can just walk around the fence, they tend to stay away from the woods and into the open space in the front yard.

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Then we connected the fence we had left from the east porch toward the driveway, and started our wood pile to go all the way along the drive.

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The wood pile fence serves four purposes.

  1. It deters the chickens from trying to get to the other side. Chickens are, well, chickens and afraid to go where they cannot see.
  2. It is temporary. We rebuild the wood pile each year as we burn our wood for the winter. If it doesn’t work out or we want to try something different, we haven’t spent a lot of money on new wire.
  3. It allows our dogs continued access to all parts of our yard. They are an integral part of our predator control in the berries, so we need them to be able to get anywhere necessary on a moments notice.
  4. The wood pile looks pretty awesome. We love being able admire it as we drive down our gravel lane. It’s a constant reminder of all of the hard work we put in in the winter months.

Since it is still wood-cutting season, our wood pile is not yet complete. Our goal is for it to wrap clear around to the end of our lane and behind our berry patch sign. Hopefully we will be there in a few weeks.

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The fence is completely open to the south. The chickens are free to head out into the field if they choose to, but they usually stay pretty close to the house…usually.

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Future Plans

We still intend to fence off areas in our strawberry rotation land for the chickens to free range. This has just bought us some time to complete the projects when we are able to physically and financially. Until then, the open fence is progress.

At this point in time, the fence is keeping most of the chickens where we want them to be. We have one rooster who likes to fly over the fence (where he can see the other side), and he has a group of ladies who follow him. For the most part, they just have races between the rows of blackberries, which is a very amusing thing to watch!

The dogs have figured out how to get around the fence when they need to.

IMG_4296Since moving the fence, we rarely have to shoo chickens out of the blueberries and don’t have to wash poop off the sidewalk very often.Berry pup 1

Berry Pup is sad though…not nearly as many chicken poop treats.

What challenges do you have with free range chickens? How do you keep them from taking over the place? Leave your comments below.

How We Expanded Our Homestead Without Buying Land

 

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As our berry farm has grown, we have been contemplating how we are going to have enough land for proper crop rotation. All strawberry farmers know that long-term success evolves around the ability to rotate crops. We were left with the question, “How can we expand our ground without purchasing land?”

The Problem

Growing conventional strawberries requires proper crop rotation. Strawberries can stay in the same place for a few years, but as time goes on the berries get smaller, risk of disease increases, weeds get thicker, and insect damage increases.

Space is essential to start new strawberry patches and eliminate older ones.

When we started our berry patch, it seemed as though we had enough ground to do everything that we wanted to do, until we realized that we needed to keep our strawberry land separate from much of our vegetable land. You see, strawberries are not friends with many of the vegetables that we enjoy growing…tomatoes, beans, squash, potatoes, etc. They attract the same insects and diseases, therefore, it is best to keep them separated throughout your crop rotation.

We like to grow about an acre of strawberries. With crop rotation, that means we need about four acres of land devoted to strawberries (and cover crop during the rotational years). We already had about an acre planted in blueberries, blackberries, and raspberries. So, in order to continue keeping the quality of strawberries that we wanted, we needed a little more land.

Just purchasing a little more land is quite an obstacle. We really needed something within walking distance from our homestead so we could tend to it on a daily basis while watching the kids. Plus, the risk of theft with specialty crops increases greatly without constant surveillance.

We inquired with a few neighbors to see if they would sell an acre or two, but nobody was interested.

So we started thinking about a different way…

Our Solution

Clearing some pine trees from our own land seemed to be the best option. When our place was first built, this area was intended to be a Christmas tree farm. The trees just grew up and took over the area.

 

A before look from the east

Before clearing the trees, our new strawberries didn’t get quite as much sunshine.

 

Clearing pine trees from the west

After it was cleared, we planted cover crops to help rebuild the soil and reduce the possibility of erosion.

We kept a few pine trees in the front for some landscaping.

 

We also cleaned up the edge of our woods to bring in more sunlight to our existing field. This also gained us several more feet of farmable area.

What We Gained

Clearing our land gave us exactly what we needed. We now have more farmable land in order to handle our strawberry crop plans. Proper crop rotation will help us be sustainable with our berries in the future.

Now we have land exactly where we want it…right within our homestead.

Although we began clearing the trees ourselves, we did decide to hire a crew to clear the land. We felt our time was needed elsewhere continuing to build our business. Using our own tools, this would have taken all year. Hiring a crew with the appropriate equipment was still a substantial savings from purchasing land.

We are excited about all the possibilities we have with our new space. Our chickens have already been busy trying to rebuild the soil.

What was your biggest obstacle when beginning your homestead? Leave your comments below.