A long saga culminated in the 2022 Hen Drive. I was the only one who saw it. But I filmed it, so now through the magical mystery of Instagram, it's internationally famous. Over a million people! Here's the tale.
We built a hoop house. It’s a house for chickens, a house for plants, and is a better house than I lived in the first 9 months that we owned the farm. The hoop house is fully weathertight, features 360-debgree ventilation, electrical outlets, switched lighting, timed lighting and year-round 10 gallon per minute water. My Dad and I built it. I’m proud of having taken the dream and made it reality, so I’m excited to share the whole saga - the build, the purpose of the hoop house, and the Chicken Drive.
Why: The farm needs a way to keep hens happy during the winter. A hoop house – a semi-cylindrical metal frame structure covered in greenhouse plastic – is a fine and dandy option. It is relatively inexpensive, can be built relatively quickly, effectively keeps the wind and weather out, and warms up nicely each day with any sunshine. Many pasture-based farms (real ones, not the 1,000,000+ hen farms that have eggs labeled ‘pasture-raised’ in the grocery store. A different topic, a different time.) have proven that hoop houses keep hens happy and healthy for many months each winter. And they are a multi-use structure – we plan to grow tomatoes and other heat-loving crops in the hoop house Spring through Fall, while the hens are on pasture.
The Build: Like every other house, whether it be for people, cows, dogs, on the ground or in a tree, the framing happens fast and it feels like you threw down Jack’s magic seed and overnight you’ve got an enclosed structure. But God and the Devil are in the details, and the details before and after the basic framing are where time is invested.
Site: It’s going to be there more-or-less forever, so you’d like to put it in the right spot. There’s hardly any infrastructure on the farm, so it’s not obvious where this nearly-first piece of infrastructure should go. You hem and you haw. You walk around the sunflower field with a 300’ tape and survey flags. You sleep on it and eventually the farm spirits whisper to you in your slumber that the hoop house belongs on the gentle slope along the south side of field 1, oriented east-west, starting up-slope 30 feet from the bottom of the valley. And you heed the whisper.
Hoops: Go to the big box store, buy a trailer load of galvanized 10’ x 1-3/8 top rail, 1-5/8 line posts, ¾ emt conduit, ½ emt conduit, 2x4s and 2x6s. Bend the hoops. Bring everything down to the site, and, after checking your 3-4-5 square method, eyeballing it, measuring the corners, and re-measuring and re-eyeballing a few times, pound in the ground posts.
The stage is set for the first of 3 dramatic moments: The setting of the hoops.
The hoops are 3 pieces of 10’ top rail, bent by hand using the jig, all slid together and screwed to prevent sliding apart. This makes a 30’ diameter semi-circle – the hoop. The ends of the hoops are slid into the ground posts and bolted into place. In 30 minutes, you’ve got the hoops up, in another 30 minutes of monkeying-around you’ve got the hoops adjusted pretty much straight and even with one another, and in one last half-hour and they’re bolted in place forever.
Dramatic moment #1: The basic framing is complete, a flat piece of dirt is suddenly a structure.
Water: Chickens and plants both drink water, but neither can acquire it while under the cover of a hoop house. A full hoop house of birds would be 400 birds and would need at least 15 gallons of water a day. Nobody wants to haul 15 gallons of water every single day. And a surface run pipe won’t do for the 8 months each year of below freezing temperatures. So deep buried water lines were the best, most permanent, most robust option. We worked like dogs for a week with a rented mini excavator, shovels, and wrenches, wrestling with 1-1/2 heavy wall poly pipe that is connected on one end to the house pressure tank and the other end to several 6’ buried “yard hydrants”. All of the poly pipe water line is buried 6 feet deep, well below the frost line. One of the yard hydrants is in the hoop house. This should be a robust solution to summer and winter water for many years to come. Fingers crossed, because I don’t ever want to dig that shi** up again.
Framing Details: Finish carpentry for a hoop house – metal bracing on every hoop, wood hip boards to hold the roll up sides, base boards to hold the mulch in, end walls with a tractor door and a storm door, wiggle wire channel around the whole house, chicken wire on the inside to keep the chickens away from the plastic covering, hardware cloth on the outside to keep predators from digging in.
Electrical: To keep laying eggs during winter, the hens need more hours of light than the sun provides. A minimum of 12 hours, more ideally 14 hours, of light are needed for optimal lay rate (about 5 or 6 eggs a week). There is no electrical within 500 feet of the hoop house, so I considered a solar light system, or even running a few extension cords (I only need about 100 watts, 0.1 amps, for the lights). But, like water, we went with the more permanent, robust, versatile and reliable solution, and installed 120 volt service with switches and outlets, just like your house. I spent a half-day slowly shuffling backward behind the rented trencher, digging a 6” wide x 2’ deep x 500’ long trench to bury the UF cable in. It was real boring. But a helluva lot better than spending a backbreaking week digging a trench by hand. I wired it all in at both ends, installed string lights, flipped the switch and Bob’s your uncle – party lights on.
Plastic Covering: The hoop house is covered in 4-mil greenhouse plastic. It’s one sheet about 40’ wide by 120’ long and weighs maybe 80 pounds. A still and warm November 1st morning was bestowed upon us and 3 of us pushed, pulled and poked the plastic until it was over the greenhouse and draped on all sides.
Dramatic Moment #2: Metal stick frame to weather-tight house.
Mulch and the other comforts of home: No matter where you keep chickens, bedding must be considered and provided. (Bedding is what the chickens are going to poop on). Many options are available. For example, daily moves on pasture allow the pasture itself to be used as the bedding. This is advantageous because you are getting the high-nitrogen fertilizer exactly where you want it without any additional labor. Alternatively, there are just a handful chickens free-ranging the yard and barn and driveway, then no bedding is really needed at all, since chicken concentration is so low and the manure will be so spread out. In the hoop house situation - keeping several hundred hens in a 20’x60’ structure – a significant amount of bedding is required to keep the birds happy and healthy. Any type of carbon will do – straw, hay, leaves, sawdust, corn stalks, mulch. We chose mulch because it is available on our farm or from the utility company tree crew, because the hens greatly enjoy scratching through it, and because it can be moved easily enough to add more mulch, remove mulch, or push it aside to make garden beds.
The Chicken Drive: It’s the hens that makes a house a home. All that separated us from home was The Long Walk, The Yellow Brick Road, The Hen Drive 2022.
We had these hens since the 4th of July. They were in the brooder for about 5 weeks, then on pasture from August through early November. Since September I have been working hard to complete some major projects and get the farm wrapped up for winter, including getting the hoop house fully ready for the hens. November 9th I dug the electrical trench. November 10th I ran the wire and backfilled the trench (and backfilled the giant water line trench). November 15th we finished installing the end wall plastic and spread mulch. All this time I had been moving the hens pasture pen (the field pen they sleep in) closer and closer to the hoop house each day, hoping to have the pasture pen at or at least very close to the hoop house for the moment it was ready to be moved into.
We didn’t beat the snow, though. November 14th it snowed and the hens stopped cooperating. They flat out refuse to walk on the snow. The hens wouldn’t leave the pen, nor would they walk forward onto the snow if I pulled the pen forward. I stood there and explained that better accommodations that awaited them, just 40 yards away, but they were not open to rational persuasion.
I thought it over for a day as it kept snowing. Somehow the hens needed to get into the hoop house. I didn’t want to catch and carry them they 40 yards, because they don’t like it and because it’s hard bent over work. An alley made with temporary fence wouldn’t work, because they could and would fly over a four-foot fence. And carrying or setting up a feeder wouldn’t work, because they aren’t that enticed by food and they wouldn’t walk across the snow anyway.
Eventually it dawned on me that the snow might be used to make an alley, that the hens’ curiosity might eventually draw them down the alley, and that the comfort of the hoop house might keep them there. Those are 3 suppositions, 3 “mights”. I figured it was worth a shot. I needed the leaf blower and a bale of hay.
The leaf blower cleared away the few inches of snow, making an alley 3 feet wide by 40 yards long. After the snow was blown away, I shook apart a small square bale of stemmy hay to make a chicken-beautiful surface to walk on. Due to the snow, the hens would be confined to this hay alley, and their curiosity would pull them along the path as they pecked the hay for seeds and such.
I opened the pasture pen’s door and the most strangely entertaining and surprisingly effective livestock drive began. They filed out the door and meandered right along the yellow-hay road. I pushed the last few hens out of the pasture pen and walked slow and patient behind the whole chicken parade. The flock surged forward, stalled now and gain, new leaders went ahead, the rest followed along. In a few minutes it was over. The hens had been given a path to their new digs, they took a look and they approved. The group was in the hoop house and I closed the door behind them. I was right amused. Nothing with so many “mights” and “maybes” goes that well. Better lucky than good. I’ll take it!
Dramatic Moment #3 - The 2022 Hen Drive.
The hens are in the hoop house. They’re happy as can be, running around like its summer even on a windy 15 degree day. They scratch and peck at the mulch, dust bathe, cluck and crow. Their comfort is apparent and their ability to express their nature in this setting is outstanding. Happy hens. And, last week, at about 20 weeks old, the hens laid their first egg! It’s great to have this group coming into lay, and we are stoked to have extraordinary quality eggs, very soon, for our customers.
Thanks for reading everyone, hope you enjoyed the tale of the Hoop House, Happy Hens and the 2022 Chicken Drive.