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 experience of 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 experiment with these elevated mesh boxes were so successful they’ve got their own tutorial below.
These chicken grazing boxes create a protective buffer between delicate root systems and the ravenous beaks and prehistoric scratching claws above. This riser provides just enough protection to young plants so that cool weather grasses can grow year-round, providing forage in winder months when free-ranging is more difficult.
My Grazing Boxes Experiment:
Inspired by seeing stems of 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:
Supplies You’ll Need:
- 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)
Download Free Woodworking Plan
Download the free PDF plan below, or just keep reading for a step by step walkthrough + tips on how to place, plant, and rotate boxes.
Step by Step Instructions:
Download Free PDF Plan & Cut Lumber
Frame Chicken Grazing Box
Cut Hardware Cloth Top
Attach Mesh to Frame
Add Supports if Needed
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.
Plant Seeds in your Chicken Grazing Box
Best Grass Types for Chicken 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, just be sure the grain hasn’t been treated to prevent sprouting, irradiated, 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.
Choosing the right seeds for your Chicken Grazing Boxes
Seeds and grasses that do best in chicken grazing boxes are hardy grasses. I prefer oat grass in my grazing frames because the chickens love the taste and it can germinate at lower temperatures (see above), but you may want to experiment with growing grasses that are native to your region. Growing native grasses is often much easier because the plant has adapted to thrive in our climate and soil.
Believe it or not, grass is an excellent source of nutrition for chickens. Although we are used to feeding hard grains and pelleted feeds to chickens, a diet of grass – and the microorganisms and insects that call a patch of grass home- provide excellent supplemental nutrition for both meat birds and egg-laying hens.
Sprouting chicken scratch grains with the grazing box
If you want to give chicken grazing boxes ago without purchasing specialty seed, try sprouting your scratch grains. “Chicken scratch” as it is labeled in most feed stores, is a blend of different seeds that can vary by region and by the feed mill producing that particular brand of chicken scratch. Generally, chicken scratch seeds are not heat-treated or irradiated, meaning they can sprout and grow into the plants that produce them. Many of these seeds can grow into rather large plants that a chicken wouldn’t bother to eat, but a chicken grazing box can help you sprout these grains into tiny edible nutritional powerhouses for your chickens.
Sprouted grains may offer more accessible nutrition than hard grains, and a grazing box makes it easy to sprout grains for your birds. When you scatter chicken scratch in a grazing box you can choose to either let it grow into small grasses that breach the wire mesh and become a little plant buffet for your chickens, or you can scatter your seed during the rainy season (or, at a time when you can water it every other day or so).
If the seed is kept consistently moist, within about a week your seeds will sprout (usually, even without a soil covering) at this point, you can choose to move the grazing box to a new location, spread more seed, and let you chickens eat the nutritionist sprouted grains left behind.
Best Location for Placing Grazing Boxes:
You can place your grazing frames anywhere your chickens have scratched and pecked an area of earth down to just dirt. You can even place the box in an area of your coop prone to mud and standing water! Mud can be harmful to chickens’ feet, but a grazing box can keep chickens elevated up out of persistent puddles- and even improve drainage in that particular area of your chicken run!
Grazing boxes to Improve Chicken Coop Drainage:
When grasses die, bare earth is exposed, and as that bare earth is trampled by the traffic of chicken feet, the soil becomes compacted and unable to absorb excess moisture. When it rains on this compressed dirt, the water doesn’t soak in- it just sits on top or washes away, taking layers of that dirt with it. In chicken coops with compacted and eroding soil, grazing boxes can help restore a healthy root system.
In the same way that urban “rain gardens,” help prevent storm drain overflow by absorbing and then slowly releasing rainwater, grazing boxes can help slow harmful runoff by providing healthy, aerated soil that can absorb rainwater and release it back slowly. By building a few grazing boxes and moving them to a new area of the coop run with each planting, you can help your entire chicken run have less of an environmental impact.
Grazing Frames for Other Animals
You can definitely use grazing boxes for more than just chickens! Although chickens are one of the most grass-aggressive domestic animals, when you have no choice but to keep a grazing animal on a less-than-ideal amount of space, grazing boxes can help you keep fresh grasses available to other types of pets- such as rabbits, ducks, and geese. If using this concept with larger animals, such as ducks, geese, or turkeys you may want to create a stronger frame using recycled metal grates elevated with bricks or pavers.