Building, Bonding & The Beatles
Building a chicken hoophouse has been just an idea for years. We had intended to build something similar to expand our smaller, traditional chicken house at the Wyoming farm but it was always put off.
During 2019, our first full year living here at the Chillicothe farm, we cobbled together what we needed to raise our meat chickens from baby chicks to 9 week old full size broilers. We no longer had the sturdy, but small, chicken house left behind at the Wyoming farm. We made it work but it was quite clear this spring was the right time to finally build the hoophouse.
The idea was a 20′ x 40′ hoophouse, covered in white plastic (blocks out 50% sunlight to keep it cooler) split inside between a brooder for baby chicks needing extra heat and TLC and the teenagers – chickens past the tender stage – about 3-4 weeks old. The chicks would start on the brooder side, move to the teenage side and then out the door to the pastures to finish until they are 9 weeks old. The design will keep the chicks safe from predators, give them plenty of room to grow and make our work easier and more enjoyable.
On April 22, after a month of on and off work, the chicken house was finally completed. Not a moment too soon!! Less than 24 hours later on April 23, the house was populated with 400 2-day old chicks and 400 three week old chicks that arrived on the farm April 2.
The work began March 22 just about the time the COVID-19 situation got serious here in Illinois. We’ll remember building this hoophouse with Lucy, Susannah and Laura as we sheltered in place. It was the 5 of us who tackled every step of this project and the girls were champion throughout the whole thing. Yes, of course, we’re biased but you just couldn’t ask for a better team.
And, the soundtrack to this project? The Beatles. In early March, we watched the Beatles documentary Eight Days a Week. It’s been Beatlemania in our house ever since. Not too many moments went by during the building of this hoophouse when someone wasn’t singing a Beatles song or talking Beatles trivia to anyone who would listen.
Here’s a look back at how it came together.
Looking at the first photo, our building site for the hoophouse looks rather rough after the laying hens overwintered in the area. Deep straw bedding lies on the ground and the hens are still allowed in the area. Late March and it’s still cold and wet. But, we break ground with Anita digging 4 holes for the corner posts that will be set in concrete. It’s snowing but the work is enjoyable, the ground is soft, the digging easy, and we’re excited to finally move forward.
Sunnier skies and warmer weather to pound the ground posts in to hold the hoops. All the pipe used for the hoophouse is 10′ top rail sold for chain link fence. It works well for hoophouses, too. Brian cuts ground posts with a diagonal cut on the end and Susannah and Laura pound in all the posts but one. Brian had to put in at least one. The corner posts are set in concrete and allowed to cure. Then, on to the hoops. Each hoop is made of 3 pieces of 10′ top rail. We use a hoop bender to bend each piece of top rail and then screw the 3 pieces together to form a complete hoop. Susannah and Laura easily move each hoop into place sliding each end onto the ground posts. It’s starting to look like a hoophouse.
Susannah and Laura continue working with Brian to install 2 x 6 baseboards screwed into the ground posts and 2 x 4 hip boards to stabilize the hoops. The girls are handy with the cordless drill and install all the u-channel along the base boards. The u-channel is a piece of aluminum that will hold the future plastic covering in place with a stiff zig zag wire called wiggle wire. The wire embeds the plastic in the u-channel and makes an incredibly strong connection.
Using the tractor bucket as a lift, Anita and Brian work together installing the purlins – more top rail pieces running the length of the hoophouse for strength and stabilizing the hoops. Three sets of purlins are installed. We want this hoophouse sturdy and strong!
Amid all the work, Rascal stays close by but is obviously completely bored with the project.
Hoophouse work and Beatlemania continues. There will always be some downtime as Brian cuts pipe, wood or just collects tools and materials. Susannah and Laura keep busy by penning Beatles lyrics down the side of the hip board. There were several feet of lyrics. Can you name these two songs?
With all the pieces in place, we wait for perfectly calm weather to cover the house in plastic.
And, that comes on Monday, April 20. It’s crystal clear blue skies and our pond is a sheet of glass. No wind. Perfect conditions.
The 5 of us convene early at the hoophouse along with Look-a-Like kitty who claims top step on the ladder for the exciting show. He’s been supervising us for the whole project. We roll out the 36 x 48 piece of 6 mil white plastic, tie lines in a few places on the leading edge and then gently ease the big sheet over the hoops. It comes over easily and then the work begins securing the plastic in place with the u-channel and wiggle wire system. We work carefully but quickly worried the expected wind will build at any moment. There’s a lot of pulling tight this way and that way in order to get the piece as wrinkle free and tight as possible – it hurts the fingers and hands. After a couple hours, the plastic is safely secured and we can have a bit of breakfast and fresh cup of joe. Big relief!
Bella was also on hand to watch the show but is obviously completely bored with the project.
Getting the big piece of plastic on the house is a big step forward but there is still plenty to do. And, we’ve got chicks coming in just a couple days. Next step is to frame the end walls and install more u-channel so we can cover the end walls in plastic. We also turn our attention to the inside and install half sheets of plywood along the baseboard along with chicken wire to prevent birds from getting stuck between baseboard and plastic. One thing we have learned over the years – there are infinite ways a chicken can bring about it’s own death. Ways we never thought were possible. We have to think like a chicken! Where can they get stuck? Where are the pitfalls? Using staple gun and cordless drill, the girls make the inside snug, tight and hopefully chicken proof.
It’s looking good!
Ready for more plastic! We are so lucky to get another pristine morning to install the end wall plastic. Again, we use the tractor as a lift and Anita puts Brian up in the bucket to begin securing plastic on the end hoop. We tug and tighten over and over to get the plastic right. Lucy gets the honor of cutting out the doorways on each end. Plastic installation and removal DONE.
Lucy and Brian spend the rest of the day working inside the hoophouse dividing the area into 2 sides to accommodate the 3-week old birds and the babies due to arrive the next morning.
Again, we luck out and the morning is calm and temperatures very mild for moving the 3-week old birds from their temporary brooder area to their new home. Any drastic change can cause stress so a calm, cloudy morning is perfect. We move the birds in plastic crates and it goes better than we hoped. The birds are calm during the whole move and they quickly adapt to their more spacious home running at top speed, flapping wings and being about as playful as a chicken can appear.
And, just a few hours later, the expected call from the post office came. 400 baby meat bird chicks were waiting for a ride to the farm.
The baby chick area had been prepared complete with the space ship brooder equipped with heat lamps. Brian picked up two of these vintage chick brooders (heat providers) at the annual Annawan farm auction years ago for $3 each – a complete steal. He bought two of them – no one else bid against him. Other folks had no idea what they were! Even the auctioneer’s assistant asked Brian, “Whaddya going to do with ’em?” After Brian declared, “I’ve got a batch of chicks coming in just a few days!”, the fella replied with a sincere and enthusiastic, “God bless ya.” Suppose he was happy to see them go to good use and they’ve sure been the best thing to keep baby chicks alive.
The reward for all the hard work came when the baby chicks arrived at the farm. The girls wouldn’t miss this moment. There’s nothing cuter than a 2-day old chick. The girls lifted them gently from the boxes and set them free in their area with food, water and a warm comfy space ship…..except for the occasional chick that spent a few moments being held or sitting on girl’s shoulder.
This hoophouse is special because we built it from start to finish with just us 5 while sheltering in place from COVID-19. No matter what happens, we’ll remember this project fondly because the girls were right there with us the whole way, the Beatles songs were being sung and we worked through the long process together. As far as family farming goes, it’s about as good as it gets.