Monday, August 26, 2013

Putting the chicken tractor into a lower gear

As guided by Linda Woodrow in her book 'Permaculture Home Garden' the chicken tractor has been rotating around the garden in a 3 monthly cycle, twice a year - once in Autumn and once in Spring. On each rotation they spend 2 weeks on each of the 6 beds. For the other two 3 monthly periods the girls spend their time in the outer chook run patrolling the perimeter of the garden. Linda advises moving the chickens to a second mandala garden during this off-period, if you have got one.

Sometime ago my mother and I were enjoying a nice chat in the garden when she indicated her desire for a similar garden. She continued to say however that she would use a different rotating tractor cycle. Her idea was to continuously rotate the tractor with no off-periods and as a result  the chickens would spend one month on each bed instead of just 2 weeks. I instantly said without even giving it a thought that that wouldn't work - as children often do to prove their superiority over their parents. I must remember I am an adult now. Anyway… I have had considerable time to rationally think through mum's idea, unbiased by my ego, and I think it is a good one, well worth a try.

My thoughts behind why I think it is a good idea is as follows… The current 3-month-on 3-month-off cycle has proven to have a few issues in my situation:

As I don't have a second mandala for the chicken tractor to go and work, the girls spend the two 3 month off-periods in a chook run that spans the perimeter of the garden. And it is this very outer enclosure that when compared to the tractor has a number of downsides common to most fixed enclosures.

  1. Even though quite a large area for 4 chickens, they have the entire area converted to a mud pit in just one month. That mean for the remaining 2 months the girls are pecking around in what I consider to be unhealthy conditions. And it can get a bit on the nose.
  2. The kitchen scraps that we like to feed them are not always eaten and are instead dug into the ground. This is great when they are in the tractor working over a garden bed, but in the outer enclosure all they are doing is nourishing the soil for weeds. The same goes for the wonderful and highly valuable poo, for 6 months of the year it wasted being mostly unsalvageable.
  3. And that brings me to the next issue where this highly fertile soil becomes a weed heaven. Now not that I care that weeds grow in the chook run but it's their seeds that spread into the adjacent garden beds, and that does concern me.
  4. While in the outer run the girls need somewhere to sleep and they do this in typical hen house, which brings another set of issues with it. For safety against predators the hen house door has to closed at night and opened up again in the morning. Without employing a high-tech automated door this is a task I have to do. It’s not a biggie but one of the goals of this garden is efficiency. The removal of a 5 minute daily task does add up. It also becomes tricky when we go away on holiday.
  5. The other issue with the hen house is that it doubles as a toilet and requires me to clean it weekly. The chook tractor doesn't have this problem as the house is frequently moving.
  6. The highly necessary fence that surrounds the garden preventing the chickens from helping themselves to the vegetables does mean we too are unable to access the rear of the garden beds. It then becomes necessary to walk on them - compacting the soil.
The outer run does have a couple of benefits. The girls do get a very large area to stretch their legs. But that said the tractor is dome shaped - they can run around in circles, as they often do when chasing other birds that try and get their seed. The other benefit is that they have successfully kept the garden perimeter mostly free from grass. Which I will miss.

My mum’s idea of keeping the chickens in the tractor full time however, will remove the need for the outer chicken run and house entirely and free me of the above mentioned problems. But the biggest motivator for putting the tractor into a lower gear is all about creating a consistent rhythm for the gardeners (us). I have found 3 months on, then 3 months off, means my routines change every three months. And even the types of tasks that I am performing are quite different between the two phases. I am a big believer in consistent and frequent routines are a key to success - ask any athlete. I also believe the 3-month-on 3-month-off method has partly contributed to the dips in the gardens productivity. So I am looking forward to what will hopefully be some positive results in both efficiency and productivity.

My only concern is how the girls will keep cool in summer. Currently they spend summer in the outer run and can seek shade from a number of trees. The tractor will be in full sun for a good part of the day, and even though it has a fabric cover I am sure it is not as effective shade as a tree. I have spent considerable time working out the best starting point for the tractors rotation to ensure the tractor will be located on the most shadiest beds during the 2 hottests month of summer - January and February.  I would love to hear of any other ideas to keep them cool.

If this idea does workout all credit goes to you mum - the humble brains in the family. And if it doesn't workout I have got someone to blame ;-)


  1. Great post Jason. I enjoy how your garden is continuing to evolve. My chooks are in the large dome which is now on a permanent site and heat can be an issue in summer. I sometimes put a large plastic container of water in there for a paddling pool.

    1. I like the pool idea. I often find them standing in the drink container, but I will have to get a larger container so they can all have a splash together.

  2. Jason, we do this - our girls continually rotate. We do have a side bed that they can sit at if the timing isn't quite right, but in general they just go round and round - we're not nearly as methodical as you are, so often we'll walk outside and say, "ooh, better move the chooks". :) The bonus is we don't have an external run or a hen house. We've dealt with the heat in summer issue (not as big a problem for us here in Sydney) with removable shade cloth that lets us block heat and or adjust airflow through the dome.

    1. I am pleased to hear someone else is already having success with continuous rotation. Does the shade cloth just draped over the dome or is it supported by a separate structure entirely?

  3. Great post, should always listen to your Mum :-) We employ longer rotations on our beds because we currently only have two chooks in our dome following from a dog incident. Our girls are often on a bed for nearly two months - we toss in cow manure and mulch when things get toward the need to rotate and that keeps the girls amused.

    Separately, we have a 7th bed that is off to one side of the mandala and is partly shaded by the fence - we try to make sure the girls are parked there for the summer so we only need to provide additional protection on one side of the dome.

    Our process isn't nearly as rhythmic as yours sounds, but we do the best with our poor surviving chookies.

    1. Sad to hear about the dog incident. Yes I can imagine with only two chooks driving your tractor it would go around a lot slower. Are you going to get some more chooks? Whenever we have lost some I have always replaced them. I have no problems introducing new chickens in the dome. Due to it being round it is not possible for them to corner the new comers and peck them to death. They just end up getting allot of exercise for the first few weeks. Eventually they become great buddies.

  4. Hi Jason, I'm a first timer to your spot and glad I came. I also use Linda W's chook rotation system up here in far north qld on top of the mountains. I have generally stayed with the original 3 mth + 3 mth rotation. While it is more exacting to plan and I do have a 2nd mandala in action, I have stuck with it, just to see... We buy no vegies at all after 12 months effort and perennial foods plants.I have been raising chooks without chemicals for much longer than I have housed them in domes and have had virtually no disease issues. I believe this is due to moving the housing at 2 week intervals to prevent parasite build up & having lovely fresh ground (along with lots of herbs etc). as far as the heat goes, I have a much larger tarp attached to my dome, but not to ground level to allow for air flow at chook level. I also drape 70% shade cloth over the open section when its really hot. Sometimes I give the whole dome a generous hosing which they seem to love. I guess that still having tall remnant plants on site when the girls move on helps with shade. I really look forward to visiting in the future & hope you'll check out our blogspot, too. Michele

    1. Awesome to hear of another Linda Woodrow inspired gardener, and especially one who has achieved 100% vegetable self-sufficiency. I will definitely be following your blog.

      I agree, the constant moving of the chickens is the key to their health. I can't image there would be much difference between 2 and 4 weeks though. 4 weeks is only a bit longer than a single lice life cycle. Two mandala is definitely the way to go though - I would be sticking with the 2 weeks cycle, if I had two.

      Good to hear your girls are surviving the dome in the heat. You have made me feel a little calmer.

  5. Hey Jason have a look at us these days, 4 mandalas 2 domes going very well, veg self sufficiency and selling at our market stall. Also have posted very successful dome building instructions free, gets many international hits. Have 6 to 8 hens and rooster in one dome.


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