Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Expanding the Chicken Run, Part 1

you can just see Mr M and the ditch witch, starting to dig the new run perimeter on the backside of the coop I built this spring and summer

I mentioned that a couple weeks ago we worked on expanding the chicken run. We did this for a couple reasons.

The original covered run is a little bigger than 10'x12', which I thought was a good size until 27 nearly full grown chickens were actually in it. They took it down to bare dirt in less than a week.

I always planned on having some sort of rotating setup so we could move the chickens from area to area, with the covered run reserved for the days we were away from home. I didn't have time to do it before we butchered this year's batch of chickens, though.

The original plan involved moving electric fencing around in the woods, but we have enough deadfall that I was worried about the fencing getting grounded by fallen branches. Added to that is the fact that our neighbors have a Great Dane who likes chickens, and I just didn't trust a portable electric fence to protect our chickens.

So then I came up with the idea of a large area with a secure perimeter (buried fencing, hardware cloth, etc) that could be divided internally. The internal divisions could be done with chicken wire, since the only thing chicken wire is good for is keeping chickens in, which is a lot cheaper than hardware cloth. The size would preclude covering it, so we'll put a small shelter in each section for the chickens to hide under and I will probably figure out a way to give them access to the coop during the day so they can go in if they want.

We'll leave the chickens in one area for about a week, then move them to the next area for a week, and so on. Letting the areas rest will help plants and bugs re-populate and recover so there's more food for the chickens.

heading down the hill

When I came up with the idea I knew that digging the trenches for the buried fencing by hand wasn't going to be an option. I'd dug the perimeter of the enclosed pen by hand (about 35 feet all together, I think) and it took me days. I just don't have the time, or desire, to spend days and days digging through roots and rocks. I remembered seeing a ditch witch used by some of the full-timers when I worked for the county parks department back before my mission, and I realized that that would do the job.

While I'm comfortable doing all sorts of things by myself, ditch witching is not something I wanted to do by myself. Ditch witches are just too big, heavy, and awkward. I could probably have managed it, but it would have taken awhile and possibly more manhandling than I really could handle.

So I decided to wait until Mr M was able to take some time off work, and then we'd tackle it together. Or, more accurately, he'd tackle most of it and I'd supervise :)

We ended up with the bigger ditch witch because the smaller ones were all being used already, but it was a bit much for the CRV and our little utility trailer. The CRV could only get up to 45 mph and the trailer was creaking ominously. Despite that, Mr M was able to maneuver the ditch witch around and get the ditches dug. A few trees caused some slow-downs, but it only took him an hour to dig 115' feet of ditches.

We rented the ditch witch for four hours, and it was pretty affordable. It was definitely worth the money and worth saving the time and effort that would have been expended if I'd been digging by hand.

I hadn't quite thought ahead to when I'd install the hardware cloth, but the forecast of rain made me realize I had to get the hardware cloth buried immediately. If I didn't, and it rained, the rain would cause all the dirt to go back in the ditches and I'd have to re-dig them. No thank you.

So after the ditch witching was done, Mr M returned it to the rental place and then went to Lowes for fencing materials. While he was doing that, I made sure the ditches were clear all around (some dirt had fallen or been pushed in during the process) and then started digging post holes.

We needed nine post holes dug, which takes a while, so I hadn't finished when Mr M returned, but he was able to start setting the posts in the holes I had dug. Working together took so much less time and was so much more efficient. Who knew?  :)

look at that straight line, dug in just minutes

The next day I cut the rolls of 1/2" hardware cloth in half in preparation for burying them. 1/2" hardware cloth comes in rolls 24" tall, but I only wanted 12" tall panels, hence the necessity to cut them in half. It was killer on my hands- a week later they were still a bit sore from wielding the tin snips. Then I bent the hardware cloth out on the bottom edge and stuck it in the ditches before filling in all the dirt, leaving a few inches of hardware cloth showing.

That's as far as we got for now, but it's also the hardest parts of the project, so finishing it won't be too difficult. I'll attach the upper edges of the buried hardware cloth to boards like I did for the enclosed run as well as adding more hardware cloth, but that's a project for another day.

I have until March to get the run finished, but my goal is to have it done by Christmas since our worst weather is usually in January and February.

posts in and fencing poking up from the trenches

The enclosed run had fewer plants available to the chickens because I'd trampled or covered in dirt a good percentage of them. Doing the fencing now gives the ground more time to recover and more plants to re-grow on the dirt that was moved around.

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