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Gravity Chicken Run Design

by Milkwood Permaculture

Gravity and chickens are two of our favorite natural forces at Milkwood Farm. Chickens scratch, poo, give eggs and good company, plus a trillion other benefits. Gravity draws things down. Great if you want stuff to end up down the bottom. Which, in the case of our gravity fed chicken house, we do!

For the past three years, our chooks have lived in our geodesic chook dome as it chicken-tractored its way slowly across our hillside. The result has been an emerging forest garden, its soil pecked of grass and ready for mulching and planting with edible trees and ground covers each time we moved the dome.

For this effort we thank our various chickens. Now, it’s high time to build them a permanent chicken run. Design time!


The great moment of tension and truth when we joined the cable between all
four posts and tightened it up to become the top edge of the chicken run….

The chicken run we’ve designed is both standard and unusual. It sits on the edge of our Zone 2, on the outer edge of the upper food forest, directly below the warré beehives and between the old and new top dams. It’s about 20m from our back door.

Chicken Run Design Parameters:

  • Low cost
  • Relatively fast to build
  • Use recycled materials where possible
  • House our chickens safely from predators (foxes, dogs)
  • Keep the chickens warm in winter and cool in summer
  • Provide easy and daily access to the chickens and their eggs
  • Provide easily accessible nutrients (i.e. composted chicken poo) for the wider growing area.

This last parameter was a big one. We want easy and regular access to the manure of this chicken run so that we can use it to increase the fertility of our gardens. We didn’t want ‘cleaning out the chicken house’ to be a major undertaking, rather one that was easy to do on a regular basis.

So we decided to let gravity (and the chickens) do the work for us, in true permaculture design style. Enter the Gravity Chicken Run!

This chicken run design was partly inspired by an old article (which we cannot find) about a down-sloping chicken run with manure collection at the bottom, and also by Joel Salatin’s deep litter systems for his cows and chickens.

The chicken run is on a 11º slope (which is a 1:5 slope, or 20%, if you like), running straight uphill. There is a door on the northern side at the top and bottom. The run is 20m long by 5m wide.

We will be using gravity and the chicken’s scratching ability to ensure that, over time, everything mobile in that space (mulch, chicken poo, etc) naturally creeps towards the bottom of that slope, at the bottom edge of the chicken run.

The time it takes for the organic matter to migrate down the slope is important…. It should be long enough for seeds to germinate (generating more feed and ensuring weed free compost) and long enough to build up plenty of soil organisms and insects in the material that makes its way to the bottom.

At the bottom of the chicken run is a door, for accessing the composted manure and mulch that makes its way down there over time.


Bottom of run, seen from inside during construction.
Note flat load for manure transfer out this bottom door.

The RawBale chicken house (more on that in another post shortly) is up the top. Everything inside the chicken run (the chicken house, the feeding stations) is elevated and allows for material to pass by and downhill. So inputs go in the top, are processed by the chickens, and exit down the bottom thanks to gravity.

The walls are made of chicken wire, with a skirt of old tin. This tin skirt gives the chickens some immediate wind protection, and also makes it harder for foxes to see the chickens. We’ve also installed a ‘fox wire’ – a single strand of plain fencing wire around the perimeter 150mm out from the fence, on the ground and under tension, which according to local lore should help.

The corner posts are angled bush poles that are under tension thanks to the cable running between them (forming the top edge of the walls), and the cable running from their tops down to the ground.

By using tension as a major force in this design, we’ve been able to use just four bush poles, even though the long sides of the run are 20m. Because we live in termite country, we wanted to minimize the wood used in this structure, as we didn’t want termite-proofed (read: toxic) wood near our food forest, or near our chickens.

And by raising the poles above the ground, the chickens should take care of termites as they make their way upwards to our poles. We hope. It’s worth a try!

A bit of extra engineering and thinking at the start should now yield a structure that is stable for a long time while using materials that are economical to source, mostly recycled and safe for our chickens, our family and our land.


Angled bush pole corner post, with its strength coming from
tension in various different directions


Milkwood interns Kade and Chris attaching recycled iron to the skirt of the run


The floppy wire at the top of the chicken run walls.
This should stop any fox that manages to climb up the vertical part.


The Gravity Chicken run under construction, seen from the north side.

Shelter for the chickens, beyond their RawBale Chicken House, will be the next priority.

Once winter takes hold we will be transplanting a 5 year old black mulberry tree to the center of the chicken run, which will provide summer shade and lots of mulberries for the chickens.

We’ll follow that up with strategic plantings of tagasaste (protein-rich edible leaves and bee fodder), lombardy poplars (edible leaves, fast growing), and acacias (annual dump of edible seeds) within the chicken run.

We’ll also use the external side of the north wall for trellising annual climbers as part of the food forest.

We’re pretty pleased with this design. It’s very cost effective and allows us to give our chickens a large run without breaking the bank, and providing for both our, and the chickens’, needs. Hooray for good design and gravity.

At time of writing the whole setup is nearly finished – I shall report back once it’s all done and dusted.

Just on the fodder plants thing – does anyone have any suggestions on drought-tolerant fodder plants for chickens that are multi-use as well (and maybe even good bee fodder) in addition to the species above? We would welcome any thoughts on that….


Gravity Chicken Run completed, Rawbale Chicken House nearly completed,
and chickens installed….

~~~~~~~

Many thanks to Milkwood interns Kade Smith, Christian Tyler, Amelie Bischof and Belinda Joy-Sheekey and also to Wwoofers Christian Horn and David Williamson for their input and energy. Thanks also to Shane Mills for being a general legend.

16 Comments

  1. Thats a fantastic plan! I’d do the same for my chickens.

    With regards to plants for chickens, I grow heaps of sage (salvia officinalis) both for the wild bees that set up a nest in my garden and for the chickens. It grows well near the hot pavement, doesn’t need much water and produces loads of flowers all summer. I’ve seriously never seen the bees so busy. When the flowers start to taper off, I trim it all back, let it dry for a few days and then chuck it into the chicken coop along with dried trimmings from the wormwood and rosemary (never had mites on the chickens so I credit it to the herbs). I don’t grow as much thyme and rosemary because I found they don’t spread as prolifically and thyme hates shade with a passion. Good luck and post more about your chickens please!

    In summary the benefits of sage:
    – flowers for bees
    – leaves chopped into chicken feed to prevent worms
    – post flowering trimmings can be dried, added to chicken coop litter
    – the plant tolerates heat, dry spells and shade too

  2. Adam, you forgot the best bit about sage – it’s a delicious herb for cooking! One of my favourites :-).

    For the plants, I’ve been recommended pigeon pea by a friend. He’s sending me seeds so I can get them started for my chooks. Apparently they love the shade and shelter under the plants, and the peas themselves are very nutritious.

  3. Agree with Adam T, inspirational design.

    Have built our chicken house using the gravity model too. Appreciate the height of the Milkwood design and plan to move our chicken house higher also – makes for easier access and probably better protection from predators.
    For sheer scale, productivity and plant diversity this is one of the best chicken runs I have seen in a while. Congratulations!

  4. great artical,
    fox’s did you dig in some wire under the soil surface? about 1 foot is usaualy enough to keep them lil buggers out.

  5. Hi guys

    I applaud the use of gravity, but I’m just wondering if there are any concerns about the rest of the soil they will move downhill other than the manure and straw. Those little buggers can be bloody good excavators and I’ve had a hell of a time with chooks on slopes in the past, digging out fruit trees and exposing 50cm deep post footings.

    Nowadays I lean more towards 2 simple deep litter yards. Once the CN ratio is sufficient I leave it to cure while they go to work on the other. Nothing fancy, but it works.

    Cheers

  6. Hi Wayne,

    That’s probably my biggest concerns about our new run too. We are watching how it goes at the moment. We might be able to keep the erosion under control by keeping the litter very deep but I expect we’ll have to terrace the slope to keep the soil on the hill.

    We have lots of small (up to 30cm diametre) eucalypts that need thinning so we may end up staking those logs across the slope.

  7. Hi Nick

    Yeah that was my solution when it happened to me. Just another little tip for folks out there, if you are building a deep litter system with a roof, remember that you will have up to .5m of material so if you don’t want to be bending over all the time, you’ll need to account for the extra head room.

  8. we live on a significant slope and found that small logs across the slope work very well. it stops erosion and havving the small terraces reduces the amount of times we fall on our backside when it rains! the terraces work well when planting crops for chookies while pen being rested. it slows the movement of the weeds/hay down the slope, giving more time for the seeds to be consumed. we made our terraces low and narrow so the young birds could easily get up them.

  9. Questions from the neophyte: I’d like more information about the chicken house – flooring: does it allow any flow through of stuff? Can a human stand in it, or is that necessary? How do you access the eggs? Etc. Will you need to feed anything else besides the materials provided by the landscaping? Water of course. Would like to know about raw bales too.

    Thanks!

  10. I planted a dozen Russian Comfrey plants near the chicken run. Our 10 laying hens get 1 pound of fresh comfrey daily. They especially love the flowers, but will eat everything I give them before any other greens or scraps. Comfrey has the benefit of being a cut and come again plant that is very prolific. I also grow maral for the roots for people. The chickens enjoy the foliage and it is also a cut and come again plant. It needs more water than comfrey though, as comfrey sends roots deep (10-15 feet) looking for nutrients and moisture.

  11. This post and the comments that followed was very informative and encouraging. Thank you. I appreciate your style of writing and the photos included – very enjoyable.

  12. Awesome plan for a chicken run. Thanks for bringing up this Gravity Design Concept, I would like to research more about it. Can you recommend resources online on where I can get more information about gravity design? I Will greatly appreciate any help. :-) Thanks again for this excellent post.

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