At any given time, I keep 5-10 hens at Hawk Hill. Often times they free range during the day, but with dogs and a somewhat urban backyard, they spend many days confined to their 80 year old coop and a 10 foot by 12 foot fenced run.
I was frustrated by the fact that chickens will pull up and eat any plant that sprouts in an enclosed run. One year I experimented with rings of fencing to “rest” sections of the run long enough to establish growth, however I found that the chickens had an impressive ability to move the fencing, even when anchored with landscaping pins. Eventually, I decided to try elevated mesh boxes that would allow grass to grow the top through for the chickens to eat during months when free ranging was more difficult.
My Grazing Boxes Experiment:
I decided to experiment with small sections of hardware cloth (wire mesh with openings about 1/4″ x 1/4″ wide) that I had leftover after another project, stapled over a 2×4 frame. The elevated design prevents the chickens from damaging the roots of the grass.
They are simply frames made of 2×4’s, with supports every 12-16 inches to prevent heavy hens from forcing the mesh top to sag and allow beaks to damage the grass underneath. With the hardware cloth firmly stapled to the frames, these frames help provide my chickens with fresh grass for 9-10 months out of the year. The chickens neatly “mow” the grass, through the mesh, without damaging the roots.
How to Build Grazing Boxes:
- 2×4 Lumber (Pressure Treated will last longer) Cut to lengths of 24 inches and 18 inches. Save your scraps for the final step.
- A Kreg Jig (most sturdy construction) or Corner Brackets (flimsier and may require corner braces)
- Staple Gun
- 1/4″ Opening Hardware Cloth (NO Substitutions, the 1/4″ is perfect but larger openings will expose plant roots to pecking beaks) Luckily, 1/4″ grid hardware cloth is easy to find.
Step 1: Frame Box
Using two long pieces of wood and two short ones, frame a box using whatever method you are comfortable with. I used a Kreg Jig because it makes a very sturdy frame very quickly, but if you don’t work with wood much, basic brackets should work if you aren’t planning on regularly moving your grazing boxes around the chicken run.
Step 2: Cut Hardware Cloth
Unroll hardware cloth over the frame and cut to size. Thankfully the grid makes cutting the hardware cloth lots easier! You can use snips, wirecutters, or pliers for this project. (Briefly, I even had a pair of electric snips and cutting stuff like this was like cutting through butter!)
Step 3: Attach Mesh to Frame
Using about double the amount of staples you think you should need, staple the hardware cloth onto the wood frame. I advise doubling up on staples because you can expect some sturdy birds to be sitting atop this mesh, sometimes in pairs or groups, putting pressure on the staples.
Step 4. Add Supports
My first attempt at grazing boxes didn’t have supports in the center, and my cleverest hen quickly realized that by plopping down her full bodyweight in the center of the hardware cloth, she could cause it to sag just enough that she could reach the tenderest shoots of young grass.
To make sure the grass has a chance to grow strong roots before being pecked, use the scraps of your lumber to create a few points of support. Just place under the grazing box on your workbench and use the staple gun to add sufficient staples to hold the block in place.
Best Grass Types for Grazing Boxes:
My experience in Missouri is that whole oats (borrowed from the horses’ feed bins) performed the best. It grows in cool seasons, can be planted without requiring tilling or covering with soil, and has roots strong enough to stay in the ground when chicken beaks pull at the growth reaching through the mesh.
Have you tried anything like this to provide fresh green food to your chickens? I’m considering trying, for a future project, covering the entire coop with a framework of 2×4’s, and sectioning off portions for different type of grasses and portions for dust bathing.