Rethinking sustainability…leaving the farm

Early this year, I sold a small organic farm on the outskirts of our city, and moved back into the suburbs.

Our farmhouse in the morning. It was idyllic, beautiful…and not sustainable.

I didn’t really have a choice, to be honest. I was divorcing, and the place needed to be sold for financial reasons anyway.

But prior to that, being on the farm for nearly a decade had made me rethink what sustainability means, and how we can move forward in a world that seems intent on, well, not moving forward much at all.

Petrol…the fly in the ointment

We were extremely car-dependent at the farm. There was no public transport. The nearest supermarket, bank, school – all of it was a drive away. There were no buses or trains. This was a huge hurdle to sustainability.

I was routinely spending $100 a week on petrol, and my partner was spending the same. Getting around drained our energy, our time, and our finances.

It was lovely living on the farm and having heaps of space – and animals! – but there was a lot of work behind the scenes that I didn’t expect and that cost a lot as well.

Did I make a mistake moving to a farm? No. But I don’t think that type of lifestyle is the way forward for humanity, as a whole.

It’s appealing, and it stirs in us a vision of an idyllic past, but it’s not practical for a sustainable future.

The present…around the corner to everything

When my new partner and I bought a home this year for our four kids (two of his, two of mine), we bought a very, very walkable home.

Our new house and garden from the rear. It’s in a lovely sunny spot, central and walkable to everything.

The bank is a two minute walk around the corner. There’s a park just across the road. The supermarket is five minutes’ walk, with shops and cafes and restaurants in-between.

Our Walkscore at our new home is 74. That translates as “Very Walkable. Most errands can be accomplished on foot.”

Our new home is very walkable, with a great “walkscore”. See https://www.walkscore.com/ to find your own walkscore!

By comparison, our Walkscore at the farm was 0. “Car-Dependent. Almost all errands require a car.”

The difference is striking. Our kids walk to school, unless the weather is bad. My partner can walk to work – and does. I can walk into the city, or a bus runs right past our door every few minutes.

Most days I don’t use the car much, if at all.

I’d been wondering how I’d possibly be able to stay at the farm should I ever stop driving. Living here, that’s never an issue, because I simply don’t need to be able to drive.

What does sustainable really mean?

There’s no point in running an organic farm if you’re using three tanks of petrol every week to get anywhere.

You’re trashing the planet, no matter how organic your veggies are!

By comparison, the suburbs can be more sustainable if you live with a large group of people together, share your energy costs, walk for a lot of your journeys, and the journeys you do need a car for are short.

Plus, from a purely financial point of view, I’m not spending massive amounts of money on petrol every month. I don’t particular want to make oil companies richer. Does anyone?

Of course there’s more to being sustainable than petrol and cars. Suburban chickens, worm farms, backyard fruit trees, and an unpackaged, locally-produced diet can all play a part.

home made chicken tractor

Suburban chickens can play a role in sustainability.

So can handing-down clothes, buying locally-manufactured clothing or secondhand, using a capsule wardrobe, and limiting imports.

A capsule wardrobe can be a part of modern sustainability.

Finally, reducing family size through access to contraception, ease of access to abortion, education, and solid welfare support all play a role, as can voting on environmental lines and social welfare concerns.

Moving forwards to a new sustainability

I’m not sure what genuine sustainability will look like in the future. But, looking back, I know what it isn’t.

I know we need to reduce car usage, and we need to make our cities more walkable, and lobby to make public transport better and easier to use.

Perhaps we need to open our minds to new ideas, and discard old dreams that don’t fit with a modern reality.

My farm was lovely, and it was organic but sustainable?

No. I can’t say that.

However, I hope our new home in the suburbs might be…one day.

Suburban chickens in a chicken tractor!

Know about this post:

  • We rebuilt our chicken tractor (portable chicken coop).
  • The tractor measures 3 metres long x 1.5 metres wide x 1 metre high. The run end opens completely for full access, and the shelter end has a half-height hatch for access to eggs, bedding and food.
  • The tractor is made from
    • treated pine,
    • treated 7 mm thick treated “second quality” plywood (has knotholes, which we painted over),
    • chicken wire,
    • self-tapping wood screws.

    The hatches have two hinges each, and are secured with fencing nails (these form loops) through which we ran light chain and attached padlocks. The shelter end was painted with leftover paint we had in the shed.

    chicken tractor with chickens

    The chooks really seem happy in their new home!

    We also attached handles made from a small length of rope and some old hose we had lying around. The handles make it much easier to move the tractor around the garden to fresh grass every two weeks.

    The nesting box inside the shelter end is an A4 plastic box we bolted to the side of the shelter end frame with more wood screws. It has drainage holes we drilled to help keep it clean.

The tools we required for this project were just a power drill, a hammer, a special drill bit for the wood screws, a hand screwdriver, a staple gun (for attaching the chicken wire, bolt cutters (for cutting the chain), and heavy duty scissors (for the chicken wire).

The wood was all cut to the right sizes at the hardware shop (Bunnings NZ) for us for free, although we did find we needed a small saw for cutting the access hole between the shelter end and the run part of the tractor.

I designed this tractor, after looking around online and finding nothing that suited my needs (i.e. a cheap, easy to build, functional chicken tractor!). It’s into it’s sixth year (I think) and is looking great, especially with the new cladding on the shelter end.

If you’d like more information about the tractor, please leave comments below 🙂

What is a chicken tractor and how does it work?

We recently renovated our chicken tractor for our new chickens.

In case you were wondering what a “chicken tractor” is, it’s a portable chicken coop. They’re cheaper to build and they have no flooring.

A chicken tractor stays in place in the garden for anywhere between 2-4 weeks, depending on how long it takes the chickens to turn over the ground and make it muddy and remove most of the grass.

Then you pick up the tractor and move it along (the chickens stay inside while you move it!) to the next plot of fresh grass.

The benefit of this is you never have to clean a coop out, you don’t attract rats or mice, the chickens get fresh grass, and the chooks are always adding fresh manure to the ground, which the worms and grass love.

Once the ground has been turned over, you can choose to throw some grass seed on if you want, but in New Zealand everything grows like crazy so I’ve never bothered.

For the system to work well, you need to have about 6 x the amount of floor space that the tractor takes up, so that by the time it returns to its original position on the grass, it’s been a minimum of 12 weeks gap for the fresh grass to grow.

This is usually enough for everything to re-seed properly, even over winter, but if you need more space adjust accordingly.

In summer, move the tractor under trees for shade, and in winter move it out into full sun to keep your chickens happy and warm.

About our chicken tractor

I built our chicken tractor with a friend about six years ago.

Originally we clad the sleeping quarters end of the chicken tractor in some old swimming pool “blanket”, which looks like very thick oversized bubble wrap. It worked well, was cost-free as it was second-hand, and it kept the chickens warm in their sleeping area.

You can see a picture of how the tractor looked below.

chicken tractor

What the chicken tractor used to look like, with blue plastic on the sleeping end.

Note: The sleeping end has a perch that runs at half height the full width of the sleeping quarters. Chickens like to perch at night, off the ground. It helps them feel safe and happy.

Over time, we found the blue plastic “pool blanket” perished and ripped, and a complete re-cladding of the coop was necessary.

We re-lined the run end with chicken wire (the original version used green plastic mesh) a couple of years ago, but the sleeping end needed a re-clad too now.

chicken tractor 1

The tractor with its blue plastic removed. You can see how the frame is put together, if you want to build one.

A quick measure up, and we were down to our local Bunnings warehouse. We bought 7 mm thickness second quality treated structural plywood, so it won’t rot when it gets wet.

Note that if you do build a chicken tractor, you’ll need to use treated wood to avoid wood rot. Most treated pine is very affordable and designed to last 20+ years in all weather.

chicken tractor 2

Adding the new cladding to the chicken tractor. This was attached with self-tapping wood screws and a drill.

The guys at Bunnings cut our plywood to size for us for free. Yay! 🙂

chicken tractor 6

We cut out a small opening between the housing end and the run. The tractor is on its side in this picture, while we worked on it.

We attached the new plywood to the old frame using the original wood screws that had been used to attach the blue plastic – I’d unscrewed and cleaned them up with a scrubbing brush and hot water when we removed the remnants of the plastic. Re-using hardware saved a lot of money in projects like this!

Then we painted the coop up using some leftover exterior house paint that had been left in our garage when we moved in. It wasn’t a great colour (grey) but it was free, being leftovers, and suited to purpose.

The paint will also help further protect the wood and weatherproof the coop.

chicken tractor painted

The tractor painted, and rope handles attached. We may have to do more decoration as the grey is pretty grim!

The final step was using gap sealer to seal gaps in the corners of the sleeping quarters. We don’t want the cold winter wind getting in and ruffling any feathers!

We hope the newly-clad tractor will last for many years, and keep our new chickens very warm, dry and happy!

home made chicken tractor

The chicken tractor in action in our garden 🙂

How many chickens?

A chicken tractor this size can comfortably house six chickens (or five hens and one rooster), but 3-4 birds is a more comfortable fit.

chicken tractor

We have six chickens in our tractor at the moment, but two are destined for the pot in a couple of weeks. Four chickens is a much better fit for this size of tractor.

We found that 3-4 birds is ideal, because our household provides an almost perfect amount of leftovers to feed the birds, so we have virtually no costs in chicken food.

This is a win-win – our food waste becomes a usable product, and we get free eggs. Plus, chickens fed on household scraps are happier and healthier than chooks fed nothing but pellets!

How to look after suburban chickens

Chickens are really easy to look after.

hyline chicken

Our chickens are hylines – they’re great little layers, and easy to handle.

Like all animals, they need fresh water, plenty of good food, and appropriate shelter.

Chickens also need oyster grit to create good strong eggshells.

You may have heard that they can use ground up eggshells instead of grit – this is true but it can encourage them to eat their own eggs which you don’t want!

Instead, use the crushed eggshells on the garden, and buy a bag of grit. It’ll last forever and is very cheap. Put a small amount in a heavy bowl – they won’t take much but they will use it.

We replace their water every 2-3 days, or if it gets mucky before then. You don’t need a fancy water container – we’ve always just used a bucket or plastic container. Just make sure the water level is accessible, and there is a brick or similar in the bucket so it doesn’t get knocked over – chickens like to perch on the edge of their water container to drink!

Chickens eat practically anything from the table – including chicken! Ours eat everything except avocado pits and peels, carrot tops, lollies (hard sweets), and actual bones.

We feed our chickens every leftover from the table, including: bread crusts, stale bread, apple cores, leftover veggies, leftover meat, leftover burgers and pizza, dripping and fat from roasting trays, fish fingers, tofu, curry, you name it!

When we have a lamb or chicken roast we throw all the bone leftovers in the cage. The chooks love it! They peck every tiny scrap of meat away and even eat the marrow if they can get at it. Snap big bones open with a mallet – they’ll peck at everything inside.

Chickens need proper shelter, especially in extreme climates. Where we live, it gets down to freezing and we have a couple of snow days each year, so the tractor we’ve built does them fine. But if you live in a really cold climate you’d want to build a tractor with two layers of plywood and insulation between.

Chickens are known to overheat on hot days, so move the tractor away from direct sunlight if it’s going to be a scorcher.

Finding good layers… and how to pick an old bird!

I messed about with fancy birds for a few years, but these days I stick to Hylines or Brown Shavers. It’s up to you what breed you go for, but for a good layer try to find birds that are less than two years old.

The older a bird gets, the bigger the eggs they will lay over time. Their comb will be pale or dull, and their legs pale and extra scaly. Most of the better layers tend to be smaller, lighter breeds.

A good layer will give you at least 5 eggs a week, sometimes more.

If you want to keep a rooster, be aware that many councils have restrictions, due to noise. Check first, before getting your roo in.

Chickens don’t tend to get too many parasites, but they can get red mites. If they do, you can buy dusting powder from the local vet. It’s the same powder that is used for horses, so if you have a horsy friend ask if they have some first.

Ending food waste – with suburban chickens!

Chickens are the ultimate Pets with Benefits.

Housing chickens. They’re cheap to house – I built my chicken “tractor” out of recycled materials and some pieces of wood for very little money. Their nesting box is a plastic crate nailed to the side of the shelter end of the tractor, and their bedding is hay – one bale of hay lasts all year.

You can see the egg hatch in this photo. The shelter end of the tractor is made from recycled swimming pool cover. The tractor has no mesh on the bottom so the chooks can graze freely.

You can see the egg hatch in this photo. The shelter end of the tractor is made from recycled swimming pool cover. The tractor has no mesh on the bottom so the chooks can graze freely.

Moving the tractor. If you have a portable coop like mine, or even use a rabbit hutch for your chickens (they’re ideal), you can give your chickens access to fresh grass every day, then just move the coop along when they grass is gone. Their droppings fertilise your garden, and the grass helps keep your chickens healthy.

Chickens for renters. If you keep a small number of chickens in a portable coop or rabbit hutch, they’re a suitable pet even for renters. Check with your landlord, but many of my friends rent AND keep chooks! Better yet, with a portable coop you can take your chooks with you when you move!

Feeding chickens. Chickens end your family’s food waste and cut down on garbage going out to the landfill. We keep an airtight container on the kitchen bench for everything we don’t eat, and it all goes to feeding our chickens every day.

Chickens will eat practically anything. Mine won’t eat avocado skins or pits, and they’re not so keen on carrot ends, but everything else (including leftover chicken!) goes to the chooks.

I have friends who also give me their food leftovers. They simply keep a bag in their freezers and, when it’s full, they give me the bag which I give to my chickens. This way, I rarely have to buy chicken food.

Food waste is a real problem in our society. Instead of buying cat or dog food, and creating a problem, why not keep chickens, and solve a problem of waste for your family and family friends? Our chickens live on the leftovers of three households, so they’re really doing their bit for the earth 🙂

My chicken tractor, which fits up to six birds.

My chicken tractor, which fits up to six birds.

Eggs for free! My chickens lay an egg a day, pretty much all year around. That’s not too bad for an animal that gets rid of my food waste problem too!

Natural insecticide! Did you know that families that keep chickens have fewer flies in their homes! It’s true. Chickens eat flies, and they’ll help keep other insect populations down.

Natures gardeners! Have a vegetable plot that needs digging over? Put your chicken coop on the plot a few weeks before you want to plant. The chickens will dig it over for you, and fertilise it with lovely chicken manure. Work done! 🙂

Choosing your chickens. When choosing your chickens, you may want to opt for a great egg-laying breed. Breeds vary a lot. Mine are Hylines, a smaller breed well known for laying daily. Google your breed before buying.

A hyline chicken, the breed that I keep. They're great layers - I get an egg a day most days!

A hyline chicken, the breed that I keep. They’re great layers – I get an egg a day most days!

What did people do before plastic rubbish bags?

Have you ever wondered what people did before plastic rubbish bags?

I’ll let you in on a dirty secret of mine – I’m awful when it comes to remembering re-usable bags at the supermarket. So are most Kiwis. We re-use the bags for our rubbish, and figure that gives us a free pass to not bring re-usables to the supermarket.

But plastic bags are a problem. And I wondered what people did before they arrived on the scene. So I did the logical thing. I asked my Mum 🙂

The world before Da Bag

Here are Mum’s answers. Although we can’t burn rubbish any more, some of her tips are great ones, and ideal for getting our rubbish down, even in this day and age when some of the food tastes like plastic!

  • The inside bin (kitchen bin) was lined in newspaper. When full, its contents were thrown into the metal rubbish bin. If she was short on newspaper, she bypassed this step completely, but it meant the bin needed washing more regularly.
  • Peelings and food scraps were put on the compost pile, or given to the chickens. Did you know that if you can’t keep chickens in your suburb or city, keeping quails might be an option? You can even keep them in a small cage on an apartment balcony!
  • Dust and cobwebs etc. from cleaning was wrapped in newspaper (again) and put in the metal rubbish bin. Did you know that dust can be composted or just buried in the garden?
  • Soft drink and milk came in glass bottles (not that Mum ever bought soft drink as it was too expensive!) and were collected at the doorstep and re-used. Most milk cartons and bottles can be recycled. Just rinse them out first!
  • As much as possible was put in the incinerator in the back yard. This included plastic wrappings (which she remembers starting to come in) and cardboard too big to go in the rubbish bin outside. These days, we know better – cardboard and junk mail can give off very toxic chemicals when burned, and the particulates will fall very close to your own chimney i.e. around your house. So unless you’re into poisoning yourself and your family, this is NOT a good idea.

These days, most municipalities have great recycling programmes. While they’re only a small part of the solution, they are a part.

So – ready to quit single use bags?

I’ve been reading up on this issue, and I’m ready to turn over a new leaf and quit my plastic bags for good. I’m going to try my mother’s old technique of just putting rubbish straight in the bin, no bag required. I’ll let you know how it goes.

You might not be as awful as I am when it comes to plastic bags. But if you are, maybe you’d like to think about having a plastic bag free rubbish bin too?

Whatever you decide, wish me luck! 🙂

My chicken tractor: food freedom with chickens

I’m a big fan of chicken tractors.

Gabby the sheep getting in the way of a clear photograph!

Gabby the sheep getting in the way of a clear photograph!

What is a chicken tractor? It’s a lightweight, moveable chicken coop that is suitable for anywhere from a large farm to a small rental backyard.

If you have room for a vegetable plot, you can have chickens in a tractor.

Mine is a pretty big tractor, because I’m on a farm and have plenty of space, but you can make a tractor from something as small as an old rabbit hutch. One friend of mine built a tractor for two chickens from an old guinea pig hutch, and the chooks were perfectly happy and laid well for him. He had his tractor on his suburban plot.

Portable chickens!

Because chicken tractors are portable, and move about where and when you need them, they never need cleaning out or get stinky. The only part you ever need to clean is the nesting box (mine has one nesting box). That’s just a quick and easy matter of replacing the straw every few days.

One end of this design opens up so I can access the water bowl. I just throw food in the top. The chickens live mainly on food waste from our kitchen, and rarely need bought food.

One end of this design opens up so I can access the water bowl. I just throw food in the top. The chickens live mainly on food waste from our kitchen, and rarely need bought food.

If you’re tractoring chickens on vegetable plots, divide your vegetable plot into six to eight sections the same size as the tractor. Then move the tractor from section to section every two weeks.

Two weeks give the chooks enough time to fertilize the plot they’re in, dig it over, eat the worms, and the grass as well if any. They’ll leave the soil in better condition, and all dug over ready for planting.

You can see the egg hatch in this photo. The shelter end of the tractor is made from recycled swimming pool cover. The tractor has no mesh on the bottom so the chooks can graze freely.

You can see the egg hatch in this photo. The shelter end of the tractor is made from recycled swimming pool cover. The tractor has no mesh on the bottom so the chooks can graze freely.

In my case, I’m using a tractor on a farm in a hazelnut plantation to build up fertility for the nut trees. I move the tractor once a week and the chickens keep the grass down while adding manure which the trees love. Plus, I get healthy hens and yummy eggs!

My tractor is 1.5 metres wide by 3 metres long and 1 metre high. I designed and built it three years ago. The frame is treated pine, and the mesh is plastic garden mesh simply stapled on. One end opens completely on a hinge, and there’s a small hatchway at the shelter end (the shelter is recycled swimming pool cover!) for me to collect the eggs.

One of our new young lambies, just weeks old, checks out what I'm up to!

One of our new young lambies, just weeks old, checks out what I’m up to!

My farm is run on permaculture principles, and we also graze sheep in the hazelnut orchard as well as grow a few daffodils. Everything is organic and very healthy.

The sheep - and lambs - in the hazelnut orchard. We have about 75 trees, all organic, and the farm is run on permaculture principles.

The sheep – and lambs – in the hazelnut orchard. We have about 75 trees, all organic, and the farm is run on permaculture principles.

You can make a chicken tractor easily on a weekend, and don’t need any carpentry skills to do so – I’m no expert, but my tractor has held together just fine for three years now!

I think the way of the old, permanent chicken coop is passe, and chicken tractors are the way of the future. If you decide to build one and get chickens in, and want to ask any questions, please comment and I’ll do my best to help!

Chicken tractors are cheaper to build than conventional coops, suitable for renters, and you can take them with you if you move house!

Chicken tractors are cheaper to build than conventional coops, suitable for renters, and you can take them with you if you move house!