Portage River Farm

  (Pinckney, Michigan)
Notes on our struggles and successes on our family farm in rural Michigan.
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Dismissing The Butler

I am happy to report that as of last week I have fired myself from one of my daily duties. The grounds of the dismissal were that I was tardy and inconsistent in my job performance. My responsibilities have since been eliminated by workplace automation. The job of which I speak is that of "Chicken Butler".


For the past year, the need for letting the chickens out each morning and closing them in at night has been a source of stress and anxiety. At twilight each evening the chickens file into their respective coops to begin squabbling over the best roosting positions for the night. Shortly thereafter the nighttime predators begin their rounds with little on their minds other than eating my chickens!

This is a game that I can win if I happen to be home and paying attention. Unfortunately there are evenings when I have been unable to be at my station outside the coop at the appointed hour. On those occasions I have found myself speeding homeward on dark bumpy roads expecting to find a scene of disastrous carnage.

I knew that sooner or later I was going to lose more chickens if I didn't find a better solution. Turning to the Internet, I ran across discussions of automating chicken coop doors. I saw a number of different schemes before settling on what appeared to be the most reliable and cost effective. The concept centers on a purchased drive unit that was originally designed for opening and closing draperies. It is basically a motorized spool with adjustable limit switches.

My longtime friend and CSA member, Fred stopped by to help out with the task of building two coop doors. Despite the rainy day, he and my son Sean and I gathered our tools and headed out to get the project done. I knew that the drapery motor units are rated to a maximum of four pounds so I picked up a couple of pieces of sheet metal to act as doors.

After a trip to the coop to take some measurements, we stood around for a little while exchanging opinions on the best way to build guide tracks for the door. Fred devised a method of using some thin wooden strips as spacers and before long we were cutting and nailing them together. We positioned the guide tracks in front of each door and then attached the drive units above.

I had run electricity to the coop when we built it last year so it was easy to provide power to the drives. During the winter we had used an electrical heater base in each coop to keep the water from freezing. The Spring weather has warmed sufficiently that they are no longer needed so we decided to employ the cords in our latest scheme. Sean, who at thirteen is already as tall as I am, rerouted the extension cord through the rafters while I retrieved a couple of electrical timer switches from the house.

We all contributed final touches to the contraption by connecting the power, threading the string through the hole in the guillotine-style door and setting up the timers to operate the doors at the proper times. When all was ready we stood back to survey the results. Since we didn't want to wait for darkness to fall, I triggered the motor remotely by unplugging and reconnecting the extension cords. As the little motor whirred to life and the door began to rise, we broke into wide grins and exchanged back-slaps of mutual congratulations at our achievement.

The doors have continued to perform in my stead with few problems. I still wander out to the coop each evening a little after sunset with a flashlight in hand to make sure that the doors have closed. In the end I have to say that I am glad to have been dismissed from those duties. Now on the occasional dinner out away from the farm, I am able to relax with the knowledge that the doors are most likely...almost certainly...well, I'll just check to be sure when I get there...closed.
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