The American mythos paints the picture of the homesteading farmer as an independent, lone wolf scratching out a living in the wilderness, but the reality has always been far from the myth. From quilting bees to barn raisings and end-of-season produce swaps, stories abound in the Northwoods of how community makes homesteading possible. 

This has manifested strongly on our own farm over the past few weeks, especially as half the team was pulled away to Mayo Clinic to support Grandpa’s recovery (and he continues to do better each day.). Friends came to run pizzas, haul compost and plant seedlings. Others donated bags of empty large dairy or plastic juice containers to cut up for protective collars around transplants to keep the cutworms at bay. 

No matter how you cut it, there is simply a high demand for hands-on labor when running a homestead farm (not to mention all the work that goes into keeping Farmstead staffed and stocked). Each year, we try to find ways to work smarter with the limited labor we have. This year, one of our targets has been the chicken tractors.

Now, when you hear “chicken tractor” you might think about something with wheels and an engine, but that’s not the case. A chicken tractor, instead, is a moveable pen with no bottom that allows the birds to range and forage without risk of being snatched up by a fox or hawk. Each day, the tractor is pulled onto fresh pasture, creating a much healthier environment for meat chickens or turkeys than a traditional coop situation. We built our two chicken tractors from kits in the early 2000s. Made of PVC pipe, chicken wire and a fitted tarp on top, we’ve made several improvements (and repairs) over the lifetime of these pens.

One of our earliest improvements was to add hardware cloth around the bottom so that raccoons could not reach their paws inside, grab a chicken leg or wing and gnaw on it. One episode of that, and on went the hardware cloth. Another addition was to tie a tarp on top of the tractor that drapes down the back and sides to offer more protection for the birds during rainstorms. I tie the tarps loosely, so that during a big wind they flutter instead act like a sail.

This year, I wanted a better way to feed the birds. Originally, I had set up hanging feeders inside, which meant having to climb inside with the pail of feed to fill the feeders, which meant I’d be attacked by the millions of mosquitoes sheltering under that tarp. Ach.

More recently, I was using metal range feeders, which are long trays that sit on the ground. But these would get caught up in the tractor as we pulled it forward in the morning, get jammed under the dolly I use to loft the back end, or insight birds to escape out the back as I pushed the filled trays inside. So, what to try next? 

After a serious brainstorming session, we decided to order two snow sleds, tie the rope around one of the front supports and let it slide along empty as the tractor was being pulled forward. Once we are at the new spot, I open the lid of the tractor and pour the feed into the sled. At first, the red ranger chickens found this rather scary, but soon they realized the process meant breakfast, and they now pile on for the feast. There’s lots of room for them to eat, and it seems to be just the right volume to hold the feed — a win-win.

But pulling the tractors (especially in taller pasture grasses) can be quite the challenge. The PVC structure was originally designed to be filled with water should a strong storm arrive. A port near the top can take a hose, while a port near the bottom acts as a drain. You cannot pull the structure filled with water, however, so it’s a temporary fix.

But over the years, there have been many needs for repairs to the PVC, so there’s no way it could hold water anymore. Ah, but the drain is still there and it’s on the front, too. That means it catches on the tall grasses, digs into ant hills and is essentially annoying. So, this year we put out the call on our farm’s Facebook page to see if anyone had old water skis they wanted to donate. 

Tom (who is a regular at our Celtic Music Session and wood-fired pizza nights) and Dave (our neighbor who also helps us maintain the culvert for the creek) took up the call. Mom and Steve took the water skis and cut off the front sections, with their upward curve. They then drilled holes to attach it to the PVC frame. Not only does this create a tall-grass-and-hillock-friendly leading edge, but it also helps to stabilize the front corners, which take a beating from pulling on the front rope each day. 

So, as Kara and I work to pull the chicken tractors onto fresh grass each morning, we’re reminded how we’re all pulling together to keep this homestead vibrant and thriving toward its vision of a healthy planet and all its inhabitants. The red ranger meat chickens sure are happy and healthy this year. See you down on the farm sometime.

Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café. 715.462.3453

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