Straw bale gardening wasn't for us. Here's what I learned and where my internet research fell short...
With my hard red clay, breaking ground without a tractor is a lot of work. Not being 100% sure where I wanted to put a large garden, putting straw bales around the chicken runs would in theory serve two purposes. It would make the ground underneath softer and at the end of the season make a nice "bed" around the chicken coop without a lot of digging. And, it would give some much needed shade to the chickens, especially once the plants were nice and tall.
Because the chickens are a fair way away from the house, we have no running water near the coop. We transport fresh water via five gallon buckets for the animals. I figured that putting the straw bales around the coop and run would also give me the opportunity to recycle the not-so-fresh water and have a watering source for the plants close by. So as usual, I started researching the internet and came up with a plan.
My folks helped me locate a local source for straw and 24 bales later, I had nice tight straw lined up on both sides of my 30' run. I soaked the bales and added fertilizer as recommended by Modern Farmer. Then after a few weeks, the twins and I planted squash, tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers. We also made some potato towers with the composted straw from the chicken runs and planted a whole bunch of seeds in cups to hopefully transplant.
Unfortunately, our seedlings didn't make. Our May was very dry and even though I tried to stay on top of watering, the seeds nor plants stayed damp enough. Then we noticed the seedling cups were turned over and larger plants that were nipped off. What no website mentioned was that I had basically setup the perfect habitat for mice.
I gave the little rodents dry homes of straw right next to a food source of chicken feed. They tunneled under the fence and straight to the feed. They ate all the cucumber and squash plants and nipped off leaves of nearly all the others we had planted. They also ate all the seeds in the seedling cups, germinated or not. Luckily we haven't seen any snakes and we haven't tried to poison the mice because we don't want to affect a chicken that may catch one.
Now the chicken's get a bale of straw to play with every week which my little Snaggles (above) approves of. The bales are breaking down and full of grass seedlings which they love not to mention, the chickens get to play with any mice that don't escape. Also, thanks to a rainy June and July, a few of the tomatoes and pepper plants have bounced back.
So before you invest the time and money into straw bale gardening, be aware of the pest problem that may come along with them. We will not be attempting this type of gardening again. Not only do the bales bring in the mice, but they do not, as advertised, require less watering than traditional gardening. In fact, in our experience they may require more water. For us, the expense of the straw, plants and soil were by no means worth the few tomatoes and peppers we may harvest.
On a positive note, the potato towers weren't affected as much by the mice and produced a basket full of pretty new potatoes that were delicious. Had we focused more on watering the towers, I think we would have doubled our harvest. The potatoes are super easy to harvest and the kids also loved hunting through the straw and soil. This method of planting potatoes is definitely something we will try again.
The ax finally dropped. Our roosters became a problem and all our efforts to get rid of them were unsuccessful minus the obvious solution. We made sure they had a great morning and then that afternoon we explained to the kids we were having the roosters for dinner.
Thanks to some helpful posts online we used a small bucket with a hole in the bottom for the first part of the butchering process and opted to skin both roosters instead of plucking.
Here are a few things we learned the hard way:
Roosters are heavy so if you are hanging your bucket, make sure you have it attached securely. The first (lighter) rooster was fine. The second, larger rooster broke the bucket handle.
Obviously roosters are physically different from chickens. Hopefully I will not have to butcher any more roosters, but if I do, I will try to find more specific information about butchering a rooster versus of a hen.
Also something I didn't expect was the temperature. I've cleaned many fish over the years, but they are cold blooded. That whole chicken from your meat market is cold too. I wasn't prepared for skinning a freshly killed warm-blooded animal. So if you are doing this for the first time, know that the animal is still going to be warm.
Lastly, our roosters were a year old which made them way too old to be decent broilers. We skinned the roosters knowing we would have to boil the meat. The meat was even tougher and darker than I expected so we opted for a recipe that involved shredded chicken.
As for the three younger people, they seemed to take everything in stride. We explained the roosters had enjoyed their life and lived in much better conditions than the chickens that supplied our local grocery store. We explained that their aggressive behavior was getting worse and that in order to keep our kids and other animals safe, we felt like it was time to say goodbye. The kids were very curious about skinning the roosters and processing the meat so in addition to not being wasteful, there was a short anatomy lesson. Then for dinner we had Buffalo Rooster Bombs that were a hit.
In the end, I think I took it harder than anyone. I had raised both birds since they were little more than a day old. That being said, I understand it was a necessary part of not only raising chickens but eating meat. The whole process makes you so much more aware of where your meat comes from and more importantly, the cost of that meat. I think that is a lesson everyone should learn.
I'm 5'9" and with my usual topknot, too tall to stand up straight if I run netting straight across the 6' kennel panels that make up our three 30' chicken/duck runs. Our more adventurous chickens have taken to exploring during the day which doesn't' really bother me. My better half however is not a fan of the unsupervised free-ranging. So my super sweet hubbie re-designed the netting system for my birthday and it's awesome.
The original idea was to use a kennel roof and cover kit in the center of the run to keep the netting raised up above the rest of the frames. I need would need three, one for each sectioned run which would be over $300 without the netting and wind could be an issue.
The second idea was to use fence clamps to bend 12' lengths of PVC over each of the three sections to achieve a "hoop" (similar to this) that I could then drape a garden netting over. The longest length of PVC my local Lowe's carries is 10'. The garden netting that I intended on reusing was too narrow and inflexible to stretch across the 10' length between kennel panels. Without an arch in the horizontal PVC pieces, the heavier weight caused the netting to sag below the 6' panels.
Our final solution was a more substantial, husband-designed PVC frame with a lighter weight netting. The framing cost us around $80. The new netting brought the project total up to $110, almost a third of what the original idea would have cost.
This is how we constructed the frame:
Connected the fence clamps to the kennel frame and installed 1' PVC pieces vertically.
Joined a PVC elbow to the vertical 1' pieces and ran 10' PVC pieces horizontally across the sectioned run to another elbow and 1' vertical piece of PVC installed with a fence clamp.
Stretched new 7' x 100' netting/rolle fencing over the entire frame running the 30' length of each section, We overlapped in the netting in center and used zip ties to secure the netting to the PVC frame. Around the edges of the kennel panels, we attached the netting directly to the chain link fencing.
Not only is this new framing system more sturdy than my hoop idea, it adds over a foot in height to the runs. We used three instead of four frames because we didn't need the height over the lower coop and the larger coop is taller than the frames anyway. We ran the netting over both coops and connected it directly to the chain link fence. The new system contains the chickens, deters predators but most importantly, I can stand up in the run! It doesn't hurt that keeps my messy bun from becoming a complete nightmare.
Update: We recently had an ice storm and although the lightweight netting sagged under the pressure of all the ice, the frames held strong and the netting bounced back into place after all the ice melted. We have one more section to complete and then it's time to make sew some grass and make some upgrades to the coops!