Chicken Run

A farm apprentice’s midwinter musings about how to make life easier for both the chicken and her tender have led to an improved egg mobile at Stone Barns Center, as well as a design that can be used and adapted by other farmers.

John Agostinho was in his second consecutive livestock apprenticeship on the farm at Stone Barns when he started talking to Livestock Manager Craig Haney about, as he says, “ways to make things easier on the farm and better for the animals.” Apprentices who stay on for a second session are expected to take on more responsibilities as well as a special project. For John, this meant selling the farm’s produce and eggs to farmers markets in the region and, as a special project, honing in on improvements to the egg mobiles.

Egg mobiles—portable hen houses that can be wheeled about the farm behind a tractor—give laying hens access to fresh pasture, where they can forage for bugs in the green grass and scratch through sheep manure. This behavior is natural, hard-wired in birds that follow grazing herbivores. Egg mobiles have been in use for a number of years on many small farms; Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms, in Virginia, is often credited with their invention. They put the “free range” in chickens and the “pastured” in pastured eggs.

At Stone Barns Center, egg mobiles are typically in use from April through the end of November, when the hens are moved into a roomy barn for the harsh winter months. After working with our egg mobiles for a season, John saw possibilities for a new design that could add more roosting space, help the birds move in and out more freely, give them more ventilation and allow them to be watered and fed while inside. Using Google SketchUp, a free CAD drawing program, John, an accomplished carpenter, sketched his design for the Egg Mobile 2.0 then set to work to build the prototype.

Although only three feet wider than the old model, the Egg Mobile 2.0 adds 40 square-feet of space, allowing for a second roost and housing up to 200 hens, if desired, 50 more than the old model. The new design creates a center aisle, which helps with flow as the birds move outside in the morning and inside in the evening.  “In the old model, sometimes there would be a traffic jam,” says John. Widening also allows for the use of prefab metal nesting boxes, which Craig says are superior to wood because they’re easier to clean and don’t attract mites.

John’s new design incorporates four droppable windows for improved ventilation and brings fresh water and feed into the house. It also mounts water barrels underneath the egg mobile, which adds stability to the frame as well as creates ease of access to that water. “We used to tow a water cart behind the egg mobile, but that’s a lot of weight to pull around,” says John. “It would often break.” The enclosed water barrels also keep the birds’ water cleaner.

In the coming months, Stone Barns Center plans to share John’s new design online with small and beginning farmers through the Virtual Grange, along with a list of materials used and a rough cost estimate. John emphasizes that the plans are scalable; he built this prototype for the Stone Barns farm’s needs, but it is adaptable for other farmers. Sharing ideas and new innovations with young and beginning farmers to help them succeed is central to our mission at Stone Barns Center.

After two years at Stone Barns Center, John left last fall to start FatStock Farm, in Columbia County, New York. There he co-manages a herd of 70 sheep while building equity in the farm, and has started up some other enterprises of his own, such as a meat-CSA that will deliver lamb, pork, chicken, eggs and Thanksgiving turkeys to Queens and Brooklyn. Will he build his hens an egg mobile? “Definitely, but smaller. I’m already kicking around ideas for that.”