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The Green Book

Prairie Schooner Chickens- Issue 18

Prairie Schooner Chickens- Issue 18
By David Schafer

When Alice and I moved into our new solar-powered home in the spring of 2000 we knew we were going to have to do something different with the chickens. Brooding with electric heat lamps was not an option. Turning electricity into heat is very inefficient and would deplete our power reserves. What to do?

I had been smitten with Timothy Shell’s PVC hoop house for his laying flock and asked Tim if he didn’t think it could be converted for broilers. Ever the optimist, he gave me his thoughts and sent some detailed plans and photos. Adding side flaps, interior doors, and a propane-burning hover to Tim’s layer design appeared to be an easy conversion to an effective brooder and shelter for broilers.

We figured dimensions for side flaps and canvas doors and hired a tarp shop to sew all the pieces for us. Building the PVC raft and hoop house was quite easy and took about a day. Installing and tuning the tarp was pretty simple also. The structure cost around $1100. The moment of truth arrived with 500 little peepers.

In they went into the hoop house. Since the hoop house looks a bit like the prairie schooners the pioneers sailed to these parts in and these pasture-raised chicks are about as close as it gets to the native prairie chicken, we like the name Prairie Schooner Chickens. The schooner would be their home for their entire lives.

We bedded the grass floor heavily with shavings to keep the chicks off the moist spring ground. Some grasses poked through giving the brooder a very pleasant touch of green. The chicks became familiar with the plant world from the start.

Within a couple of days the chicks were sneaking out the corners and seams and poking around on the pasture surrounding the schooner. In that first batch I was diligent about shooing them back in and stuffing the cracks with burlap sacks. In later batches I only worried about it if it was very cold or near nightfall. I did make sure they learned to be inside the four “walls” of the brooder at night.

The propane ran out on day three, so I figured it was time for the chicks to heat their own space. 500 chicks can create a lot of heat. The brooder worked beautifully the first time with one minor flaw. Rain and dew ran in through the Velcro on the sides where the side flaps attached to the schooner soaking the bedding on the edges where the chicks preferred to hang out. We put an end to that for the next batch. A tight-seamed flap sewn over the Velcro strip on the hoop house now keeps the rain and dew away from the Velcro.

As the chicks got older and hardened to the weather, we opened slits in the doors, propped up the doors, moved the doors toward the ends of the schooner, and eventually removed the doors and the eastern side flap. (Most of our severe weather comes from the west.) Since the side flaps only extend over 20 of the 40-foot length of the schooner, even with a flap attached for weather protection the chicks can still go in and out on that side.

An electric netting designed for poultry surrounds the perimeter of the schooner giving a nice 8 – 10 foot border. The chicks can easily run through the 2-inch squares of the netting until they’re about 2 weeks old. No worries, mate. It’s the things that eat chickens – which is almost everything – that we want to keep out and the electrified netting is awesome at that.

After several weeks we use another netting to make a three-sided paddock extending from the schooner. The perimeter fence is lifted with fence posts to allow the chicks to pass under. Our daily chores are to drag their feed and water out onto fresh pasture until we reach the end of the paddock. It usually takes a week before it’s time to make another paddock.

Then we shoo the flock back into the schooner area , if they’re not already there, lower the perimeter fence, take up two sides of the paddock fence and make a new paddock. It’s very fast. We place their feed and water at the entrance and they’re off and running again.

Speaking of running, we were astounded to see these notoriously lazy birds gallop out to their feed troughs. What a riot! It’s more like a speed waddle, actually, but they also flap and try to fly as they go. Usually they charge and retreat in great waves.

Of course we never observed behavior like this in our 10 X 12 foot pens. Another behavior we hadn’t seen before is cock-fighting with the chicks actually getting a foot or two off the ground.

Besides the running/flying and the cock-fighting, the major benefits to the chicks were:
• more space to hang out in
• never running out of feed or water
• being on pasture earlier
• having a familiar place that was home for the duration of their lives
• having a large paddock to graze
• no extra handling and crating between brooder and outside pens
• having control of their daily schedule

All those add up to a more empowered and well-adjusted chicken. For us the advantages were even greater:
• no need to pull eight pens through a pasture
• no need to fill 5 gallon water buckets (their water now gravity flows from a tank with a valve in it to drinkers on the ground)
• never running out of pasture
• no need to shut chickens in at night or let them out in the morning
• freedom to leave the farm for 24 hours if desired
• no extra handling and crating between brooder and outside pens
• extremely easy crating and loading for processing (we park our stock trailer in their paddock, funnel them into it and crate them there or, easier yet, load them in the night by simply picking them up and putting them in crates)

In fact, the prairie schooner chicken model practically operates on its own. We found we can spend nights away from the farm if we want to. No neighbors required! Talk about feeling empowered and well-adjusted!
Okay, time for downside questions. Doesn’t their feed get wet and rot? Feed gets wet, yes, and, wonder-of-wonders, the chicks prefer it that way! Well, lets face it, ground grains are bone dry. Which would you prefer, dry oats or oatmeal?

After a rainy day or night, I simply pull the feeders deeper into the paddock as always, tilting the feeder (also as always) to slide yesterday’s feed closer to the schooner. New feed fills the remainder of the feed troughs and typically the chickens go for the newer feed, but not so when it’s wet vs. dry. Wet feed: Not a problem.

What about overhead predators? For $40 we purchased some orchard netting to keep the hawks and owls out of the schooner area, but we never put it up. As with the 10 X 12 pens, we found the predator problems were worse the closer we were to the woods. There are many ways to deal with predatory birds. My recommendation is to scare them away from the get go. Don’t let them get the first chicken. A portable radio inside the schooner is one easy idea. We found the loss to predators not significantly greater than our experiences with the movable pens. Predation: Not a problem.

What about the footprint of the schooner and all the manure build-up there? The schooner is actually a 15-foot wide sled that is moved between batches. Because it has no floor, the manure falls between the PVC sections that make up the raft onto the ground or onto shavings. Our rule of thumb is the basic composting rule of thumb: If it smells, add more shavings.

We ended up with a 15 X 40 bed of very rich material. I had good intentions of scooping that material up for the garden as we did with our previous brooder manure. Well, as these experiments sometimes go, I didn’t do that and the experiment became: what happens to the schooner footprint if we do nothing? The recovery period seems to be about 2 to 3 years for us and you can bet those 600 square feet will be fertile for a long time. Our assessment, therefore, is land damage: Not a problem.

How well does the schooner weather? Better than our portable pens did. The roof doesn’t leak, there are no lids to blow away, and it is easier to weight down one hoop house than it is eight portable pens.
Our schooner has withstood 70 and 80 mile per hour winds without any movement. The west side was stove in by the 70 mph wind and we replaced the ¾ inch PVC shoulder braces with 1 inch. We put at least 500 pounds of railroad ties and rocks or cinder blocks on each end.

I knocked snow and ice off the roof the first winter, but the ice got ahead of me and sagged the roof. Once a thaw came and I got the load off, the frame popped back into shape, but I modified the tarp to be easily removed for winter storage so as to avoid that chore in the future. Weather: Not a problem.
We love multi-purpose, flexible, portable, low-cost facilities like the schooner. We found it to be an ideal sheep shade mobile between batches of chickens. It could also double as a winter storage shed, temporary hay shed, winter home base for egg-mobile layers. Your imagination is the limit.

The chicken enterprise has twice the return to investment as our beef, lamb, and pork enterprises. Plus chicken is the meat most requested by our customers. Since we added pastured poultry in 1993, the majority of our customers have been chicken customers first, then beef, lamb, and pork customers. A few years ago we nearly burned out processing chickens, moving pens, and lugging water and feed. The schooner lifted our sagging attitudes and kept us in chickens.

In case that’s not testimonial enough, two years ago Alice and I left a 500-acre (fully paid for) farm, sold 160 head of purebred cattle, and moved onto a 64-acre place of our own with only meat animals during the non-winter months. This move we did based on the strength of our natural meat business. It has been a liberation equal to learning to stockpile winter graze instead of making hay or selling our crop machinery. We are continually finding ways to make life easier and happier.

In fact, this fall our Amish butcher friend, Freeman, offered to raise some extra birds for us in his portable pens. We took it a step further and asked if he wanted our schooner - and to raise all the birds for us! It didn’t take long for him and his wife to say yes.

The beauty of this arrangement is that the profit (about 60%) is large enough to divide in half and still reward us both well. Another producer who uses Freeman’s butcher shop saw the arrangement and asked Freeman if he would produce birds for him also.

Now Freeman is thinking of building another schooner or two. To us it looks like new frontier just waiting for prairie chicken pioneers.

David Schafer and his wife, Alice Dobbs, raise natural meats, manufacture the Featherman plucker, and sell Ashley scalders. David is also author of Just the Greatest Life.
Schooner plans: Tim Shell ($15) 540/885-4965
Schooner tarp: Abe Kurtz ($550) 660/684-6089
Chick drinkers: G.Q.F. (6 for $15.95) 912/236-0651
L.P. Hover: Shenandoah Mfg. ($170) 540/434-3838