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“Ussery’s outstanding book is certain to withstand the test of time
both for its encyclopedic and practical information and for its acknowledgment that the future of our culture and our food security is in the hands of the small farmer and backyard producer. If
you are starting out with your first flock, this is your book. And
when you’ve been keeping poultry for 30+ years, this will still be
your best book.” —Shannon Hayes, author of Radical
“One of the most comprehensive guides out there [that]
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Whether you’re a beginner or an old-time poultry farmer, you
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to Home-Scale Permaculture
“Ussery raises the larger question: What kind of world do we want
to live in? One that treats animals as units of production, or one
that honors all life, especially that farmstead marvel, the domesticated chicken?” —Sally Fallon Morell, president
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“The Small-Scale Poultry Flock is about establishing a free-range
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. . . and fills some important gaps not usually covered well enough
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book, I recommend this one.” —Carol Deppe, author of
The Resilient Gardener
• Formulating and making your own feed
• How to breed and brood the flock (for breed improvement
and for genetic conservation), including the most complete
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• Providing more of the flock’s feed from sources grown or
self-foraged on the home place, including production of live
protein feeds using earthworms and soldier grubs
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and tillage of cover crops and weeds
• Step-by-step butchering—one of the best guides available—
complete with extensive illustrative photos.
No other book on raising poultry takes an entirely whole-systems
approach, nor discusses producing homegrown feed and breeding
in such detail. This is a truly invaluable and groundbreaking guide
that will lead farmers and homesteaders into a new world of selfreliance and enjoyment.
Chelsea Green Publishing
White River Junction, Vermont
F oreword by J oel Sal atin
An all-natural approach to raising chickens
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with information on building
soil fertility, replacing
purchased feed, and working
with poultry in the garden
Cover design by Jennifer Carrow
Cover photos by Bonnie Long and Jeff Stephens
“Here’s the ultimate book for those who want to know everything
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The most comprehensive and definitive guide to date on raising
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their loop, The Small-Scale Poultry Flock offers a practical and integrative model for working with chickens and other domestic
fowl, based entirely on natural systems. Including extensive information on:
The Small-Scale Poultry Flock
“The Small-Scale Poultry Flock is the only complete guide available
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other poultry book. . . . This book covers it all.”
—Elaine Belanger, editor of Backyard Poultry
With information on building soil
fertility, replacing purchased feed, and
working with poultry in the garden.
“Harvey Ussery has spent a lifetime developing and
showcasing a truly viable poultry model that is ultimately carbon-sequestering, hygienic, neighborfriendly, and food-secure. . . . It is this functional spirit
that will make this book a classic in the small-scale
8/26/11 11:49 AM
11 | MOBILE SHELTERS
If you day-range your flock, or use temporary fencing anchored on the henhouse to rotate the flock over
fresh plots, the birds always return to the same shelter
at night. If you pasture them farther afield, however,
you will need a mobile shelter of some sort to rotate
them to new ground, and to shelter them at night or
when it rains. I’ve seen hundreds of mobile coops,
and no two are ever the same.1 The design you come
up with will depend on the size of your flock, how
you intend to use their services, leftover materials
from other projects begging to be used, the nature of
your climate and ground—perhaps on how whimsical you happen to be feeling.
The first movable shelter I built was a copy of the
Fig. 11.1 My friend Jon Kinnard combined whimsy, utility, and the urge to recycle into this micro-flock mobile shelter. It is entirely selfcontained, with feed storage and nest in the bin under the hinged metal roofing and roosts in the rest of the shelter. PHOTO COURTESY OF DEBORAH
SSPF final pages.indd 108
8/17/11 2:24 PM
M O B I L E S H E L T E R S 109
classic Polyface design—a contemporary example is
shown in figure 11.2. If Joel Salatin’s mobile pens can
produce tens of thousands of market broilers a year
to put money in the bank, surely all of us creative
amateurs can come up with shelters that allow our
birds continual access to fresh grass while protecting
them from opportunists on the prowl.
Designing a Pasture Shelter
Below are some issues to ponder as you plan your
mobile shelter project. It could help with your
planning to have a look as well at appendix C for
design and materials considerations and step-by-step
construction of my most recent all-purpose pasture
Pasture Pens and Pasture Shelters
Micro-flocks on lawn or pasture are often confined
entirely to the shelter, which is moved frequently to
new grass. The larger the flock size, however, the
larger the protected foraging space you will want to
provide the birds. As discussed in the previous chapter, I use electric net fencing for giving my birds an
extensive area to roam outside the shelter. If you do
not use electronet, however, you might provide a
pasture pen using a set of light wooden frame panels
Fig. 11.2 A movable pasture shelter based on the classic Polyfacestyle broiler pen. Note the 2-by-4 construction—this was a first project
for its builders and is overstructured. PHOTO COURTESY OF SAMUEL MATICH
SSPF final pages.indd 109
with chicken wire, easily locked together using bolts
with wing nuts, and just as easily disassembled for
moving. Whether you need to attach a frame over
the top of the pen will depend on aerial predation
where you are.
Cody, a friend of mine, came up with an ingenious pasture shelter-and-pen set for her flock of half
a dozen layers, shown in figure 11.4: She mounted
a small shelter (2½ by 3½ feet) on a landscaper’s
wagon, complete with roosts, nests, and a ramp she
lowers—using a nylon strap attached to the ramp that
runs right through the shelter—to release the flock in
the morning. She made a separate 8-by-8-foot pen, 4
feet high and with a cover of wire over the top, and
mounted on small wheels for moving. Framed into
one side is a narrow opening into which the door of
the shelter docks. In the morning Cody moves the
pen onto fresh grass; wheels the shelter into docking position; then lowers the shelter’s ramp to release
the hens into the pen. At dusk they retreat into the
shelter on their own, and Cody pulls the ramp into
place with its remote-control strap, to guard against
unwanted night visitors.
Trade-Offs: Size, Weight, and Stability
The size of the shelter will be determined by the size
of the flock it will shelter and its intended use. At the
low end of the scale, a shelter could be designed as a
Fig. 11.3 As you can see, it is possible to build the same-sized pen
with much lighter framing, making good use of diagonal bracing.
8/17/11 2:24 PM
Fig. 11.4 Cody Leeser’s ingenious design for a small wagon-mounted shelter and a separate wheeled pasture pen. She moves the pen each
morning, then docks the shelter onto the pen and releases her hens for the day.
chicken tractor, holding six to ten tiller chickens and
sized to work a single garden bed.
As with the main coop itself, size has everything to
do with whether it will be sleeping quarters only for
a flock that is ranging outside during the day, or will
confine the birds full-time. As said, the first mobile
shelter I used was a copy of the classic Polyface model,
10 feet by 12 (see figure 11.2)—I used it to raise
fifty comparatively inactive Cornish Cross broilers
at a time, about 2½ square feet each. When I later
used that same shelter for confined layers, I limited
the number of hens to sixteen—7½ square feet each.
Remember that you will be more likely to rotate your
birds to fresh grass as frequently as you should if it’s
easy to move their shelter. It might make sense to split
SSPF final pages.indd 110
the flock into two smaller shelters rather than keeping them all in one large one that is more difficult to
The heavier a shelter, the more difficult, and possibly
the more dangerous, it is to move. On the other hand
the lighter it is, the more likely it is to be tossed into
the next county by a rambunctious wind. Of course,
it would be possible to anchor even the lightest shelter
to the ground; but again, the more difficult we make
a move—undoing and redoing a complex anchoring
routine—the more inertia will inhibit frequent moves.
Shape also plays a part in stability in heavier winds:
I have found the boxier-type shelters with a higher
profile catch the wind, while hoop or A-frame shapes
tend to keep their feet on the ground. (The classic
8/17/11 2:24 PM
M O B I L E S H E L T E R S 111
Andy Lee introduced the idea of the chicken
tractor (or as I call it, a cruiser)—a small, easily
moved chicken shelter sized to fit a single garden
bed, a key to putting chickens to work in the
garden. A few laying hens inside till and fertilize
the bed while finding free food in the form of
worms and slugs and snails—and laying eggs—
but have no access to immediately adjacent beds.
Fig. 11.5 My most recent chicken cruiser, made for
maneuvering in tight garden spaces.
Polyface model, 10 by 12 feet, is indeed rectangular in
shape, but it is only 24 inches high and stable even in
strong winds.) Materials choices (see below) have the
biggest impact on weight of the shelter.
Remember that diagonal bracing greatly reduces
weight of the frame. I framed my first shelters in 2-by4s exclusively, all at right angles—clumsy, inelegant,
and balky about moving. I discovered that even large
shelters could be made with much lighter but wellbraced framing, like the Polyface-style pen in figure
11.3. I also found that smaller shelters do not need
full 2-by-4 framing even for the bottom rails. For a
shelter of this size—at present I have two of about
SSPF final pages.indd 111
Since a tractor gets maneuvered in tight
spaces and needs to be moved frequently, it is
better to make it small and nimble. Don’t forget
to provide enough cover on parts of the sides
and top for shelter from blowing rain, and for
shade in hot weather.
Fig. 11.6 A cruiser keeps the chickens working in a single
bed while preventing access to adjacent ones. The lids on this
unit—one aluminum roofing, the other wire on wood framing—
are separately hinged for access to any part of the interior.
Nestboxes are recycled plastic milk crates attached to the
8 by 4 foot, another 10 by 3—I now rip 2-by-4s to
2¼ inches to use as the bottom rails. The remaining 1¼-inch strips I use for the verticals and diagonal
bracing; that is to say, the weight of the entire frame
is now not much more than the bottom rails alone
before this modification.
Note as well that you can reduce weight by
positioning bracing where possible to do double
duty as roosts. In a larger A-frame, for example,
you will want to include collar ties, the horizontal
pieces that tie the rafters together, providing greater
rigidity. Position them low enough below the peak to
allow use as roosts by two or three hens. Horizontal
8/17/11 2:24 PM
like the front wheels from an old tractor—make
moving over uneven ground easiest of all.
Fig. 11.7 Diagonal framing in this A-frame shelter provides
rigidity without excess weight. Note the collar ties, set low enough
to serve double duty as roosts.
stringers reinforcing the frame can also be positioned
for use as roosts.
A final option for reducing weight is to use
chicken wire as much as possible in lieu of solid
material, consonant with the need for protection
from rain, sun, and sharp chilly winds in part of the
shelter. In many shelters wire mesh replaces at least
part of the roof, and much of the sides. Use of wire
has the further advantage of maximizing airflow and
sunlight into the interior.
I prefer wheels for all my larger shelters. Instead of
installing axles across the entire width of the shelter,
I permanently install half-inch bolts in the bottom
rail at each corner, using nuts, flat washers, and lock
washers. It’s easy to use a single set of wheels for
multiple shelters, popping them onto the bolts and
locking them down with wing nuts. If your ground
is nice and even, an 8-inch wheel might work for
you. I found that, with an 8-inch wheel, the bottom
rear rail of the shelter hung up on tussocks of grass.
The additional clearance with a 10-inch wheel makes
moving much easier on my pasture.
If wheels are to be permanently installed, bicycle
wheels—or other large wheels looking to be recycled,
SSPF final pages.indd 112
Does Your Shelter Need a Floor?
The whole idea of using a mobile shelter is to give its
occupants access to fresh grass, so it usually makes
sense to make the shelter floorless. Some management choices, however, might make a floor advisable.
For example, young birds are easier to move with no
risk of injury from the rear bottom rail (see below) if
on a floor. If you do install a floor in your shelter, I
recommend using wire or plastic mesh, as droppings
will accumulate on a solid floor, requiring frequent
clean-out from the tight confines of the interior.
If the shelter is inside an electric net perimeter, you
will not have to worry about digging predators.
However, if there are large owls in your neighborhood, close the shelter at night—nocturnal owls hunt
on the wing, but also land and walk around looking
If the shelter is not inside an electric net, remember that raccoons and dogs may tear a hole in chicken
wire—in the case of 2-inch mesh, a raccoon may
feed on its victim by tearing it apart right through
the wire. If you are designing for such threats, use
half-inch hardware cloth instead, well secured to the
framing. Foil digging predators with a wire mesh floor
(2-by-4 welded wire allows both access to the grass
and protection from digging predators)—or by laying
18-inch panels of chicken wire on light wood framing
flat on the ground, entirely around the shelter.
The best option of all is to wire for defense, as
in figure 11.8: Run some single-strand electric wire
around the entire shelter, standing it off from the
sides with plastic or porcelain insulators, one at nose
level and ideally another about 12 inches up. An
inexpensive charger powered by a 9-volt battery is
sufficient to charge such a small run of wire. Whether
dog or raccoon or digging fox, the exploratory probe
of choice is the supremely sensitive nose—once it hits
8/17/11 2:24 PM
M O B I L E S H E L T E R S 113
Fig. 11.8 Wiring for defense keeps predators away.
the wire, the visitor will seek dinner or entertainment
Nests and Other Thoughts
If the shelter will house layers, you should add nestboxes, which can be mounted above ground level on
existing framing pieces. A hinged door—to shield the
nest from rain but give you access from the outside—
is a better option than crawling into the shelter to
collect eggs. If hens are inclined to roost and poop
in the nest, an additional hinged cover to swing into
place at night may be in order.
Install a door in the shelter even if you rarely use
it (such as when the shelter is inside an electric net).
Latching it will help you get ready to move the shelter
from one electronetted area to another, do a census or
selection, or isolate birds for culling.
In smaller, rectangular shelters, often the only
door is a hinged lid giving access to the interior.
Remember that the lid can be popped open by a wind
gust, maybe even ripped off the hinges, and provide
a positive catch for locking it shut. (The country-boy
version is a heavy rock set on the lid.)
Even a shelter heavy enough to withstand ordinary
winds may flip when a gale blows. When weather
predictions here are for winds well beyond the ordinary, I temporarily “nail” my shelters down using an
SSPF final pages.indd 113
Fig. 11.9 Hinged access from the outside makes it easy for Annecy
and Camille to collect eggs from my latest A-frame shelter.
earth anchor—essentially, an abbreviated auger screw
on the end of a steel rod with an eye hook on its top
end. Once the rod is screwed solidly into the earth,
I tie or wire one of the bottom rails to its eye hook.
Another way to temporarily secure a shelter is to hang
a couple of 5-gallon buckets from the framing inside
and fill them with water—that’s over 80 pounds—
using a garden hose. Just empty the buckets when it’s
time to move the shelter.
Remember your chickens’ need to dust-bathe.
Since there is no opportunity for them to do so if
constantly on fresh grass, either provide an onboard
dustbox or set one out for them on the pasture anytime
there is no possibility of rain.
Most shelters are designed to be used in the warmer
parts of the year only. If you are going to house your
birds in the shelter in winter as well, you will need to
make at least the part where they sleep a good deal
tighter against the winter winds, snow, and rain. As
noted in chapter 6, however, the shelter should still
allow a lot of airflow.
8/17/11 2:24 PM
Mobile shelters have been made in just about every
material other than titanium. Which materials you
choose will depend on which you feel comfortable
working with, what might be in your recycle pile, and
considerations of weight and climate.
I am more comfortable working with wood, so all my
shelters have had wooden frames, with one exception—
a hoop structure based on half-inch solid fiberglass rods
as purlins and as arches, anchored into a wooden foundation frame. I don’t use any pressure-treated wood
anywhere on the place remotely connected to producing food. To help prevent rot, I coat all framing pieces
in direct contact with the ground with nontoxic sealer,
renewed periodically as needed. Using a highly rotresistant wood—eastern red cedar in my area—would
be a better option if you can get it. You might design so
that the bottom rails—the parts most subject to rot—
can be replaced without taking apart the entire shelter.
Or mount the frame on plastic rails. (See below.)
When out of service over the winter, a wood-frame
shelter should always be set up on blocks. You might
even want to block each corner after each move, to
keep the rails out of contact with the ground.
Beginners often think of lightweight 1-inch plastic pipe or the like for framing a shelter. I’ve never
seen one that inspired much confidence—such plastic is pretty fragile and breaks down in sunlight.2
Heavier plastic pipe (Schedule 40 PVC, for example)
is another matter—I’ve corresponded with many
flocksters who have used it for shelters that are both
sufficiently rugged and easily moved. (See figures 6.8
and 6.9 for examples that could be scaled down for
smaller shelters.) I’ve never used plastic pipe myself.
This year I experimented with recycled plastic
decking3 to make two 6-by-10 pasture shelters for
nurturing young birds through the vulnerable (to
SSPF final pages.indd 114
aerial predation) phase. I framed them entirely in this
recycled material, on the assumption that it would last
a lot longer than wood. The jury is still out regarding
how well plastic decking serves as structural material.
It certainly is heavy—the lighter one (24 inches high,
to accommodate chickens) will move without wheels,
with some persuasion; the heavier (36 inches high,
for geese) requires wheels. So far even the heaviest
winds haven’t fazed them.
I’m especially pleased with the new chicken tractor
I made last spring and used the entire growing season.
It’s mounted on recycled plastic decking boards to
prevent rot in its wooden frame and to make it easier
to slide the shelter down the garden beds.
Electrical conduit is light and easily shaped. You may
see references to its use for framing mobile shelters,
but most reports I’ve read about it have been negative. Both angle iron and rebar—concrete reinforcing
rods made of soft iron—make sturdy frames for those
with welding skills and equipment.
I’ve heard from a lot of flocksters who use cattle
panels to frame hoop-style shelters, either secured to
a wooden base or welded to metal runners. The standard length of these panels is 16 feet; height varies
by species of livestock, but in this application likely
52 inches; steel wire should be heavy enough (likely
4-gauge) to make a semirigid fencing section welded
into a 6-by-8-inch mesh. Typically the panels are
attached to one side of a wooden frame (or welded
onto a metal one); bent in the long dimension into
a hoop attached to the frame on the other side; and
covered with a tough, flexible, opaque cover. The
result has the usual trade-offs among weight, mobility, and stability in the wind but typically has considerably more capacity than shelters framed in other
If light plastic pipe is a bad idea, such pipe covered
with lightweight plastic tarps makes absolutely the
8/17/11 2:24 PM
M O B I L E S H E L T E R S 115
worst combination. Not only do such tarps break
down in sunlight—and shred, and blow in the
wind—but the combination is so light, even a sneeze
will move it.
Heavy canvas tarps, like the one in figure 6.8, are
tough and weatherproof and make a better choice
than plastic tarps. There is one option in plastic
covering worth considering, however: 24-mil woven
polyethylene—incredibly tough, durable plastic
sheeting interwoven with a fiber mesh. It’s available
in semi-translucent white and a number of colors,
including one that is black on one side, silver on the
other. The side you face to the outside depends on
whether you need to reflect or gain solar heat to the
interior—in my climate, putting the reflective side
out is the obvious choice.4 Did I say tough? I once
had an 8-by-8 A-frame shelter covered in woven
poly, which got smacked tumbling by a gust of wind
through 30 yards of underbrush. The result was one
broken strut only (a testament to diagonal bracing),
but not a single tear in the poly.
I have used metal roofing for the solid covering on
a number of my shelters. Aluminum roofing is lighter
but more expensive; steel, heavier but cheaper. Steel
roofing is available either as plain galvanized, or with
a baked-on enamel finish guaranteed for twenty-five
years. Though the galvanized is cheaper, the paint
you would have to apply to extend service life would
Fig. 11.10 An 8-by-8 A-frame mobile shelter covered with 24-mil woven poly. Ten years old at the time of this photo, it is still going strong.
SSPF final pages.indd 115
8/17/11 2:24 PM
over time cost more than the initial investment in the
I used baked-enamel steel roofing as the cover on
the shelter in figure 11.9. See as well appendix C for
my reasons for choosing metal roofing over 24-mil
I strongly advise against assembling your mobile
shelter with nails, which work loose over time as the
frame is yanked around; use screws instead. I prefer
the self-drilling types such as coarse-threaded decking screws, which don’t require pilot holes (as do
conventional wood screws) and thus save time. (I do
drill a pilot hole for a deck screw going into the last 3
inches of a framing piece, to prevent splitting.) Deck
screws with Phillips heads are available galvanized or
coated. The best screws of all are stainless-steel decking screws with star-drive heads. Though a lot more
expensive than the alternatives, their faster, slipfree drilling and rustproof durability are important
SSPF final pages.indd 116
considerations for a shelter requiring a lot of screws,
and facing prolonged weathering.
Moving the Shelter
Twisted wire or cable, run through a piece of scrap
garden hose, makes a convenient pull for moving
the shelter. A wire pull can be permanently attached
to both ends of the shelter; or a single pull—with
twisted loops at either end that slip into open eye
hooks screwed into the bottom rail—can be used on
When moving a floorless shelter with young or
careless birds inside, watch the trailing edge of the
bottom frame. Usually the chooks come running as
fresh grass is exposed, but those who dither at the
rear may get a leg caught between the ground and
the moving rail. Actual injuries are rare if you pull
slowly, and stop and release a hapless bird at the first
shriek of distress.
8/17/11 2:24 PM
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