Lots of producers use chicken tractors. The concept was popularized by Joel Salatin and the structure size and shape has been modified by many people. I used my own version when raising meat chickens in my backyard. It’s basically an open-floored enclosure that is moved once or twice a day around a pasture. Birds live in the enclosure all the time, and get fresh pasture when the pen is moved.
But that’s not exactly “free-range” poultry. If you’re looking for more “ranging”, you might consider the Day-Ranged pasture poultry system. This is the system used by Pasture Perfect Poultry, a partnership of four farms near Ashland, Wisconsin that has been producing and selling free-range chickens and turkeys together since 2008. For a Day Range system, you’ll need a mobile pen, and an electric fenced area. Birds are free to roam all day long inside the fenced area (thus the name “Day-Range”) and at night they are put into the mobile pen if predators are a problem. The mobile pen is moved daily to spread manure more evenly, and the fence is moved as necessary to add fresh pasture.
From Start to Finish
At 3 to 4 weeks old, the birds are moved to electric-fenced pasture and their “hoopie.” The fence is a single section of netting, 4 feet high and 164 feet long. (Here’s a link to an article about how to set up this kind of fencing.) Birds roam all day long and if predators are about, they are herded into the hoopie for night. Their broiler ration is fed in gutters mounted on 2 x 4s and they’re watered with gravity flow waterers.
Pasture Perfect Poultry farms raise a cornish cross that is full grown in 56 days. The farms work together to process the birds and direct market them locally.
How Much does a Chicken Eat?
How to Build a Hoopie
The Day Range hoopie is built with five 52″x16′ cattle panels (figure 1 – A-C), 55 feet of 1-inch chicken wire, some galvanized wire, and a 12’x14′ tarp.
Three of the panels are arranged side-by-side as shown Figure 2 and tied together at the overlap with galvanized wire. The other two panels are cut to the dimensions sown in Figure 1. The ends of the two panels are used as doors (C.) to cover the openings cut into the B panels.
The three-panel structure is bent by pulling the short sides toward each other to create a quonset-type arch and fastened on each side with galvanized wire to the B panels as shown in Figure 3. This step takes at least two people.
Chicken wire is attached to the bottom 3 to 4 feet of the structure on all four sides using galvanized wire or hog rings. A hog ring pliers makes this job go faster (Photo 3).
The last step is to attach the tarp to the outside of the structure and attach doors (Photo 2). As constructed, the hoopie can house between 130-160 full-grown birds at night with room for 1-2 waterers.
In 2009, when Pastured Perfect Poultry did some on farm research about how to prove feed conversion efficiency, each farm was raising 600-800 birds per year this way. We’ll share the results of their research in future issues of On Pasture. (Or you can check it out here.)