Almost a year ago to the day, I posted about my designs for a new and improved chicken run for my girls. One that would be the envy of all the world’s fowl. In case you missed it last April, here’s the link…
Well, a year later and I was still too swamped to make the time to finish this project. If I was being a responsible adult that is. I decided that a life focused on making ends meet isn’t enough and quickly developed a “fuck it” attitude and went and got myself some lumber and cement.
Something I should say before we even get started here is that this chicken run is by NO MEANS predator proof. Using chicken wire as a barrier is useless with raccoons, skunks and foxes as they can just tear through it like Kleenex if they’re hungry enough. Hardware cloth or steel fencing is what should be used in areas where there are predators about. Also, raccoons can open any latch that man has ever created. Little cute fluffy genius trash pandas.
I live about six miles from downtown San Diego, and even though there are skunks, possum, and raccoons in my area, they do not make it into my yard often due to all the dogs in the neighborhood. It’s a gauntlet of sharp teeth and butt-lickers before they can reach my hens so I’ve taken a much more lax approach to my chicken coop design. And over the last five years, I haven’t lost a single hen to predation *knocks on wood*.
So, that being said, here’s how to make a very overly-fancified chicken run that is a mix between the Colosseum and a circus tent.
I’ve mentioned before that my initial chicken run was slapped together in a fury and with little thought towards longevity. I wasn’t exactly sure what my needs were at the time, or the needs of my hens. Was it too much room or not enough? Was I wasting precious real estate in the yard? So I decided a simple fence wouldn’t be too terrible in the short run while I observe the hens and see how it vibes with the yard as a whole.
Just to give you an idea of the set up I have, here’s a little video to illustrate the design using the finest of modern drone technologies. Note the difference between the newer front of the run and the floppy backside. Also, if you want to learn more about the coop design, go here. I’ll wait.
I’m loving this drone footage! A very very old friend of mine was visiting recently and he brought his drone with him. Spent hours zipping all over my neighborhood and took some amazing footage. I’ll be using that for posts coming up when appropriate. Cheers Mike!
Back to the chickens. After a short while, I was able to determine what worked in the run and what didn’t work. So I began to design a modified run in my head. Which was just in time as the old one was quite literally falling apart.
Having a pig in the run really helped quicken the destruction and test the overall resolve of the paltry fencing. Beyond that there were a few major issues I had with the initial design. Most importantly was the gentle slope’s effect on the placement of straw, my most used substrate for the ground cover.
I would deposit the straw near the entrance and within a day or two, the hens would scratch and toss it about in search of tasty niblets or out of boredom. All of the straw would make its way downhill and get a good 12″-16″ thick towards the back and overflow into my beds and path. Let’s go to the magic and expensive satellite cam to see the toils of this weary warrior shall we? Note little Piper bouncing around the yard like a fluffy pinball in this overly dramatic and far too long four minute video.
Shit Rolls Downhill:
This particularly sucked because I like to use the spent straw as my primary source for carbon in my compost bins. In order to retrieve it, I would have to rake it all the way back uphill to the main gate and then lug it to my bins on the other side of the yard.
So my new design needed to fix this problem as my back and buckets of sweat needed a respite from foolish toil. The solution is crystal clear when you look at these overhead shots (taken from my personal satellite that follows my every move…at great expense). I needed to create another gateway at the back of the run to retrieve the spent straw. And one that lines up perfectly with the path to my compost bays.
The beauty of this is that all the work will be done by my hens. As Darwin discussed, the success of a species is all based on its ability to adapt to its environment. It’s not actually “survival of the fittest” by the way, more like “survival of those most adaptable”. Just a little nitpick of mine.
I also wanted this new exit bay to function as a place to compost the chicken poop for fertilizer. The levels of nitrogen in fresh chicken shit are so high that they will burn the roots of many plants in the garden so it needs to be composted before adding to the soil. In addition to this, I wanted to raise up the bottom barrier in the back of the run to try to mitigate all the straw that was being pushed out into my back beds and pathways. In the beds, it was choking out my smaller plants. In the pathways, it was always a chore to clean up the mess.
Messing with my Feng Shui:
The second major problem for me was one of aesthetics. The run itself was mostly devoid of any foliage. Except for the well established Satsuma tangerine tree, there was nothing but straw and poop and dirt in there. The separation between the beds in my garden and the run was too stark and easily defined.
The beds were in place before the run was built so I had to work around them for the layout. But how do you add plants into a chicken run without the hens tearing them to shreds? I began researching plants that are both safe for chickens as well as bad tasting so they’ll leave them alone. I’ll write about my findings in another post as I think it merits it.
For now, I’m experimenting with different species with mixed results. Important take away is don’t trust everything you see on the internet! Except here on Mind Your Dirt of course. I do my research y’all!
I’d like to incorporate the existing shapes of the surrounding beds into the run itself just to break up the contrast a little so it looks more harmonious. I also want the girls to have nice little exploration areas and have places where bugs and critters can make their way into the run so the hens have more food sources to hunt in between the foliage.
So those are the challenges that needed to be fixed for this new design that has been slowly forming over the past two years. Phase Alpha took care of the shitty gate as well as a separate pen for Piper, Phase Beta needed to address the above. The first order of business (apart from finding a good friend with a truck) was to start digging the posts.
The Dirty Deed:
Violet and Piper were on hand and generously volunteered their services for bug removal and digging. Clever girls.
Using ancient Egyptian techniques (not true at all) I mapped out all the post locations. My old run wasn’t square and true, so I wanted to fix that as well so the next bit of drone footage won’t be so mathematically embarrassing. I kept it at 45° and 90°. The upcoming canopy will be at a 22.5° angle for harmony.
“I hesitantly approve while retaining my skepticism.”
I then came to the back nine where I had to work out my exit gate issue. I didn’t really want to build a whole hinged affair as I wouldn’t be accessing it too often and didn’t want to buy more lumber and hardware to make another gate.
My solution came in the form of a sweet alley find. A seemingly brand new powder-coated steel bed frame that was just the perfect dimensions for the task. Height and width were spot on, but more importantly, all the hens could squeeze there little heads and necks out easily. Not their bodies though, which is simply perfect for my plans.
A perfect solution and it didn’t cost a dime! I could simply hang it between two posts with four “L” screws for a quick and easy removal. All that was needed was the removal of that silly little bed that served as a sad lesson about how blueberry bushes prefer acidic soil. Spoiler Alert: San Diego has very alkaline soil. I was adding coffee grounds and peat constantly to keep those suckers alive. It was working for a while until a random tomato plant began growing and took over the whole area.
Speaking of which, I found a freakishly large chrysalis buried down a few inches.
“Whattheshittingfuck!?!” was my battle cry when this thing began wiggling around menacingly. And when I pulled it out of the ground?
As it turns out, its the chrysalis of a tomato horn worm (brought on by my invader tomato plant) as it turns into a five-spotted hawk moth. This thing was about two inches long, easily. Although I may regret this, I decided to bury her in a safer zone to finish her transformation. Who am I to judge?
And with that, the framework of the run was completed. Now it was time to begin removing the old eyesore fencing and do some chicken behavioral testing. The first test is how he chickens behave with the back gate. I.E., can they escape or can they reach potential food scraps in the soon to arrive composting bay.
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Testing out a whole new chicken run setup which will incorporate a slightly accessible composting bay. So far, it's working perfectly! . . . . #Violet #backyardchickens #urbanfarmer #cityboyfarmer #urbanchickens #homesteading #homestead #MindYourDirt #Telsa #HenSolo #Bernie #compost #composting #happyhens #chickentreats
Test successful!! It was now time to install the gate and add an easy to remove section of chicken wire to keep the hens from perching on top of the gate and escaping to damage my garden.
The sweet thing about this composting bay is it can be extended if needed for larger volumes of compost just by adding a couple more cinder blocks and extending it outward. The board can easily be removed along with the chicken wire and gate for easy access with a wheel barrow. I’m so happy with this upgrade and yet kicking myself for not thinking about it from the start. Always learning in this animal husbandry and landscaping game.
Beds of Steel:
So that solved problem number one. Next was the aesthetics and chicken enrichment issue. I started by extending the beds into the run and planting items underneath the Satsuma tangerine tree. In order to keep the newly planted shrubs and flowers, I needed to add some more chicken wire underneath and stake it down well. This will serve to protect the plants until they are well-established.
Hen Solo decides to inspect the strength of this protective barrier…
And soon discovers its raw power and flees in terror…
I learned pretty quickly what plants worked and what didn’t. Geranium was a definite no-go. As was society garlic. Camellia I’m still on the fence about. They attacked it at first but then left it alone. sort of. So far, the snake plant and the iris have been totally unmolested.
As I said, I’ll post a more thorough account on plantings as I acquire more data. I will say that I can already see the difference in their behavior. They pull some snails out in the early mornings and play and hide around the iris’ a lot. I’ll be adding a lot more to help fill it out as my experiments continue.
Let the Games Begin:
Now for the cherry on top of the new and improved run. A few years ago I planted a Black Knight passion fruit vine in the back corner of the yard. The goal was to eventually use it as a lovely canopy surrounding the whole coop which will be dropping tasty morsels into hungry beaks and hungry gardeners.
I’m hoping that the additional shade will create a little stretch of cooler air cutting through the center of the back of the yard. A little micro-climate of sorts. I also wanted a little of a Colosseum vibe to match all the times I’m dropping bugs and grubs into the pit ceremoniously. “For crimes against god, humanity, and gardening; you are found guilty and sentenced to death. Effective immediately.” *gnashing death beaks*
I started out by adding some angled support 2x4s near the top of the posts.
Then, following none of the safety protocols for ladders, I began adding strips of chicken wire about a foot wide.
So glad I ignored safety as on one of my climbs, two of the ladder legs found an old gopher hole and the whole setup came crashing down. Don’t worry though, my body broke the ladders fall.
It all came out nicely and the passion fruit will fill this in in no time at all. That grows so well in my yard and it can span the entire run in one growing season easily. Passion fruit for days over here!
Well, that’s all for now. Except for this! I had to share this with you guys as it makes my heart all mooshy and ginormous when I see it. My girls were so happy during this project. Probably because I was with them from sunrise to sunset for a couple days and all the digging and scratching was bringing a lot of scurrying bugs to their hungry hunter faces.
They began taking an orgy-like dust bath while cooing and purring the whole time. Just look at Violet the English game hen there! Eyes rolled back in giddy ecstasy as her little toes curl. It just the sweetest thing ever.
I’ll leave you with a photo of Sasha staring longingly into the fancy new set up. This is so one-sided though. Tell me about your dreams and designs that work for your space! Have any scary stories about predators and how you handled them? What’s the story morning glory? What’s the scoop Betty Boop?