Musical Housing

Classic Vermont Town
Often we build animal housing to be temporary or at least moveable. This is a good way of managing pests and disease naturally without harsh chemical controls. Either it is working or we’re increadibly lucky. The basic concept is that by moving the animals to new spaces, by rotating their grazing areas, by changing their winter corrals from time to time we leave the pests and parasites behind, thus breaking any cycle of reinfestation.

There is another important factor beyond health. Temporary structures give me a chance to try things out and explore ideas before I set things in stone. Plans I’ve seen in books and on the web for livestock sheds and barns give me ideas but often they aren’t quite right for our situation. Given my preference for building with granite and concrete, it is a good idea to test ideas with less permanent structures before I build for the ages.

During the warm weather when the animals are out on pasture we accomplish this by intensive rotational grazing. We graze the animals in a paddock which is a subset of the entire field for a few days to a week. The goal is for them to be in each area long enough to mow down the vegetation to a few inches in height without damaging the grass crowns, roots or compacting the soil. The animals should then be off that area for 30 days or more in order for the parasite eggs they deposited to hatch and die and the grass to grow back. This naturally breaks the cycle of parasite re-infestation without the need for resorting to medicines and is an important part of organic farming practices. This on-again-off-again grazing pattern also results in the livestock utilizing the pasture better and eating down even the less tasty items which all results in the gradual improvement of the pastures. The intensive grazing pattern favors the growth of legumes, herbs and grasses over brush and ‘weedy’ species of plants.

Another trick is changing the animal species that uses a space. Different species put different loads on the pastures. They each have their own adapted set of parasites and hangers on who can’t survive with other species. By changing who is using a pasture or permanent housing space we again break the cycles in a safe natural organic manner.

With permanent housing like the winter dens I carved into the hillside or the post and beam animal sheds we built, we achieve the cleanout by only letting the animals use those spaces for part of the year. These are all winter spaces so during the warm weather the animals are not in them. In the spring, fall and summer the livestock move out to pasture giving the dens and sheds time to air and rest. The bedding gets composted and then used on the gardens. Disease and parasite loads are vitually eliminated without having to use any chemical treatments. This is healthier for us, the plants, the animals and the soil. Good practices like this are also less expensive and less work although they do take more thinking to implement. Thinking is fun.

The poultry coop is an example of moveable housing. For the chickens we made light weight wire hoop houses which we are able to move about the pasture during the spring, summer and fall. The birds don’t live in the houses, they free range in the pasture and then return to the houses to lay eggs and roost for the night. Each time the hoop houses are moved we leave behind the week’s worth of poops and bedding along with the parasite load. In the fall and spring we remove the wooden perches and replace them with fresh saplings we cut from our woods. This eliminates the primary hiding place for mites that can infest the birds. Moving the hoop house around distributes the poultry’s night time manure over the field so it fertilizes the grass and saves us the bother and time of having to do the dirty job of cleaning out a chicken coop. Less work and better for everyone.

Over the winter is the one time the poultry hoop house stays in one place for any length of time. During the cold weather, when the snows set in, we place the hoop houses up on a foundation of hay bales. The birds come out and enjoy the nice weather but still have protection during the worst times. Fortunately, during the winter it is so cold that parasites like the mites and worms are not as active. Over the course of the winter we keep adding the bedding hay to the central part of the deep foundation. This creates a 12′ long by 4′ wide by 18″ high compost pile by spring. This is known as a deep bedding pack. The decomposition heats the hoop house a little and gives the birds warm toes all winter long. Come spring we’ll move the birds back out to pasture and they’ll get their coop back with fresh roosting bars.

Another example is pallet sheds. I need to move some young boars out of the herd so I can sell or trade them for breeding stock. Hard wood pallets make for a quick shelter in one of the garden corrals. After the young boars are gone I plan to use this space for farrowing the sows who will start dropping piglets over the next couple of months. When spring rolls around the quick shed will get disassembled, the pallets and plywood will get saved for other projects. The space will become a garden again and better for the use.

For the dogs we have several different structures including the barrels, a stone dog house and a pallet dog house not all of which get used all the time. This gives them a chance to air out time to time. Fleas and ticks are not a big problem in our area, fortunately, but every time we change the hay bedding we are helping to ensure they don’t get a foot hold. The bedding then goes onto a special compost pile, with any dog poops, to eventually become organic matter for the fruit trees and similar plantings. Moving the dogs around and simply changing the hay bedding means they stay clean, healthier and smell fresh.

Another temporary housing is the 666 WWW (Welded Wire Mesh) with plastic over it. This can be used for everything from animal housing, to waterer covers to keep the water from freezing, to garden season extenders. In the picture at the top you can see two of these structures. One goes over the waterer that is a 50 gallon barrel set in the ground along the fence line. It keeps the water ice free and provides the ducks with a pleasant winter space to get out of the cold. In front of the chick brooder is another of these WWM with plastic covers. This provides the chicks with extra protection so they can grow through our winter to become layers early in the spring. Both of these structures are open on the ends so the animals can easily go in and out. Even with that opening, they still provide a significant amount of shelter from the elements and gain heat on sunny days. By closing the ends you could create little greenhouses – just don’t cook your birds.

So far so good. We have had no disease outbreaks. Perhaps it is the fresh air. Maybe it is the uncrowded conditions. Could be the rotation through different pasture areas and housing. Another thing is our bitter winters that help kill off parasites and pests. Or maybe we’re just lucky. What ever the case, I plan to continue to keep trying to bias the odds in our favor. There is no one magical fix but rather a system of interrelated practices that work with the species we’re raising to keep everyone healthy, naturally and organically.

If they can stop you from askin
g the right questions, you’ll never come up with the right answers.

30°F/23°F, 4″ Snow, Overcast



About Walter Jeffries

Tinker, Tailor...
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13 Responses to Musical Housing

  1. pablo says:

    I’ve thought of doing the same thing. I think I could see the benefit of having a house in Kansas City. One on the island of St. Thomas, mon. Another somewhere in the Pacific Northwest. Probably one in Ireland. Oh, a few other places too. Yeah. I think I agree with your thinking, Walter.

  2. Urban Agrarian says:

    Interesting post. I helped a friend build structures with pallets for shade for her pigs in the summer. We called then ‘pig palaces’ but they look almost exactly like your pallet sheds. We didn’t even use nails. Ours were tied together with baling twine.

  3. Leslie says:

    Being new to the homesteading thing, I find your blog extremely valuable. We plan on acquiring our first livestock this spring – chickens!

    We inherited a sturdy chicken house when we bought our place. Until I read your post, I’d just assumed I’d let the chickens free range during the day and then close them up at night to keep them safe from predators. Now I’m reconsidering that. I could use the sturdy chicken house for winter housing and implement your idea of portable shelter during the winter months to let the house rest and air out. That would sure save a lot of labor – cleaning out the bedding and poop, hauling it to a composting area, hauling the compost…

    We have lots of coyotes around here, and hawks, eagles, and some foxes. Do you have many predators, and does the portable housing do an adequate job of protecting the chickens from them?

  4. Andrew says:

    Are there any issues with the pallet shelters not being water or air tight or are those not really a concern in the warmer months. I figured the inside of the shelter should be as dry as possible, but maybe the shelter is primarily for shade?

    • You don’t want air tight buildings for the animals. Fresh air and good ventilation is critically important to the health of both the animals and the farmers. We make open shelters, typically with just one or two walls plus the roof. This allows plenty of circulation of air. Having a windward wall, a roof, a deep bedding pack and a slight slope of the ground for drainage works very well. Mostly the pigs prefer sleeping out under a bright sky so if the roof is glazing like in a greenhouse they’ll be even happier. Just don’t close the greenhouse in, leave the end open. In the hot months then they need shade. During those times they primarily sleep out in the brush by their own choice.

      • Andrew says:

        Yes that makes total sense. For the pig bedding during the non-winter months are you providing hay or do they just use whatever they can scrounge up in the paddock? Does the pig housing rotate with the pigs or are there structures already set up in the new paddock in order to break any pest/disease cycles?

        • We lay down a layer of wood chips, larger are better, and then they get hay on top which they also eat. There is nothing to scrounge in the winter paddocks as we’re up on top of 2′ to 4′ of packed snow normally, sometimes higher than that. See these articles for details. We do rotate housing to some degree but winter breaks most pest cycles. In the summer months the winter sheds are empty.

  5. Andrew says:

    Also, is the pallet structure the primary housing for the pigs on pasture or is it just a temporary thing for farrowing and short term boar/garden housing? Thanks!

  6. Farmerbob1 says:

    “several different structions”

    I’m pretty sure you intended to write ‘structures’ in that bit, Walter.

    Use and re-use. I really like how you do it, not just say it.

  7. Terry says:

    Walter, when you use wood chips for the bedding, are they freshly mulched? I have heard that fresh wood chips aren’t great for bedding, but perhaps you’ve had a different experience with your pigs, especially putting hay on top of the wood chips.

    • Mostly I get fresh whole tree and brush chips. Very green. The pigs like that as they eat some of it. They love eating brush and go through the wood chips for the branches. As the chips decompose they become more edible too.

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