Our farm has long been home to chickens. Often they spend daylight hours free ranging, but for various reasons, many days the chickens stay confined to their 100 year old coop and a 10 foot by 12 foot fenced run.
Early in my chicken keeping, I was frustrated by chickens pulling up and eating any plant that sprouted in their enclosed run. Each spring, I’d try a new attempt at keeping even a portion of the run green, and usually fail. One year, I experimented with fences to “rest” sections of the run long enough to establish growth, however, my chickens had an impressive ability to move even well-anchored fencing. Although I found a combination of hacks that keep green growth in my coop year-round, my eventual experiment with these elevated mesh boxes were so successful they’ve got their own tutorial below.
These grazing boxes create a protective space between delicate root systems and ravenous beaks and scratching claws. This riser provides just enough protection to young plants so that cool weather grasses can grow year round, providing forage in months when free-ranging is more difficult.
My Grazing Boxes Experiment:
Inspired by noticing grass growing through a scrap metal grate in a scrapyard, in 2011 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.
This is one of the easiest DIY’s I’ve ever built! I’ve outlined steps below, but essentially you’ll just need to make frames with 2×4’s, and add supports every 12-16 inches to prevent heavy hens from forcing the mesh top to sag (which would 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. When finished, planted, and sprouted, the chickens neatly “mow” the grass, through the mesh, without damaging the roots.
How to Build Chicken 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 (did you know electric staple guns are a thing? They are, and they are AWESOME)
- 1/4″ Opening Hardware Cloth (Substitute anything else on this list, but do NOT sub out this hardware cloth for another. Smaller openings will block sunlight and prevent grass growth, larger openings will allow beaks to pick at roots, and any non-metal material will stretch and let the chickens kill the grass underneath)
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 corner 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, during my stint making horse head wreaths, 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 roughly double the number of staples you think you should need, staple the hardware cloth onto the wood frame. Double up on staples to account for chunky hens sitting on the 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 learned that by plopping her full body weight down in the center of the hardware cloth, she could cause it to sag just enough to pull the most tender shoots of young grass up by the roots.
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:
After trying a few seed types, I was blown away by the success of using oat grass. Oat grass grows in 3 seasons (and even through mild winters!), can be planted without digging or tilling, and has roots strong enough to stay firmly planted in the ground when chicken beaks pull at the shoots of grass reaching through the mesh.
Oat grass is true to its name- it’s just a juvenile version of the plant that produces the familiar oat. A three-pound bag of oat grass seeds marketed for sprouting should cover about 15 plantings of grazing boxes the size shown here (but buying whole oat animal feed in 40lb bags from a local feed store is a better value, if you plan to plant often!). Other unprocessed whole grains can be planted in the boxes and experimented with, just be sure the grain hasn’t been treated to prevent sprouting, or heated to a high temperature to sterilize.
According to Michigan State University: “Oats are a cool-season annual grass that grows well during the fall. Some of those benefits include: forage, weed suppression, nutrient removal, erosion control, and soil softening.” Oats germinate in temperatures as low as 38 degrees F, making them a year-round crop in some areas.
Oat grass in your coop’s grazing boxes has an additional benefit: environmental responsibility. Although we backyard farmers bear much less responsibility than commercial farming operations, it is important to be mindful of the runoff from our coops and the health of our soil. Oat Grass is a tool in this work because it has roots that bind soil and minimize erosion. Additionally, Oat grass is actually used by organic farmers as a “nitrogen catch crop.” Chicken manure is a high-nitrogen organic material, and oat grass – unlike many plants- is not only able to tolerate high-nitrogen soil, but is able to absorb some nitrogen from the soil, lowering the amount of nitrogen in coop-run runoff.