New Chicken Tractor April 10, 2008Posted by Laura in Family, Farm.
Andy Lee and Pat Foreman coined the term “chicken tractor” in their popular books, one by that name and another called Day Range Poultry: Every Chicken Owner’s Guide to Grazing Gardens and Improving Pastures. The basic idea is to allow a chicken’s natural inclinations- to lay eggs, to eat bugs and grass in fresh air and sunshine, and put down fertilizer- work for the hobby farmer.
Typically, once a day the portable coops are moved their length to a new patch of salad. The chickens then convert insect pests and grass (along with the feed they are given) into meat and eggs while leaving their manure to boost new grass growth. Variations include allowing the “tractors” to stay in place for a while so that existing sod can be tilled up naturally and prepared for a new garden bed, complete with all natural fertilizer.
Traditional farming calls for a henhouse, possibly with a small attached yard or completely loose birds. We know first hand that both of these plans have problems. When the birds are confined to small areas the manure builds up, creating an odor problem and a removal/spreading project for the farmer. When the birds are completely loose to free range, they are easy pickings for predators, they can lay their eggs wherever the mood so strikes them, and may leave their droppings in places the farmer doesn’t like them. We have tried all these methods and have settled on this:
Birds who lay well get to live out their days in tractors being brought delicious kitchen scraps, lay ration, and scratch grains while enjoying the great outdoors and shelter.
Birds who don’t lay will go to the freezer. (Cockerels better start sleeping with one eye open).
A couple of favored ones (who don’t pollute the porch) will be allowed to roam free part of the day in exchange for keeping the yard tick-free.
We built our first tractor a couple of years ago with an eye toward durability and sturdy design. It has its good points, but it is on the heavy side and we thought we could improve on it.
(We used strong triangles to form our skeleton, added cattle panels, and then covered them with chicken wire and a tarp over 2/3 of the tractor. The white pieces of wood half way through are left over from discarded wooden laying boxes. They required going inside to get the eggs and weren’t used much by the hens).
Our next design included wheels at the corners and nesting boxes with a hinged lid for easy egg retrieval. It is nice and open. It still wasn’t quite right, though. Since the nesting boxes are made of heavy wood and we have lots of rolling hills and uneven ground, it too is hard for one person to move.
(The ribs are made of flexible PVC and we covered it with 2 x 4 welded wire and a tarp. The far end has a foot-locker type set of nesting boxes. We have them screened off while this batch of White Rock meat birds matures).
(In this close-up, you can see the heat lamps cable-tied to the rib. We used them at night for a couple weeks after moving the birds from the brooder. This tractor is actually in the yard near the driveway so we could run an extension cord from the barn).
Our latest design keeps the higher ceiling (making it easier to get inside when necessary), but eliminates the nesting box weight and the entire end is hinged to open so there is no small door to squeeze through. We have a second one of this design almost finished- we make building these a whole-family project.
Instead of heavy built-in boxes, we are trying lightweight, inexpensive plastic storage boxes with a hole cut in the side. The hens really like the shadowed private space on the straw. So far, they have all used them so no eggs are getting trampled or muddy. We remove the boxes at night and retrieve all the eggs. It has worked well so far.
(We have cut the skid pieces at an angle to help get over uneven ground. There are tow ropes at both ends of each tractor so we can pull it up the length of a pasture, scoot it over one row, and pull it back down).
In places where the tractors were when it rained and the grass is a bit tired and thin now, we are taking the opportunity to sow clover and other good grass seed to improve the forage. We just scatter a handful on the fertile ground and the rain does the rest.
(The Sicilian Buttercup’s number has come up and it’s her turn in the nesting box. She will leave her white egg alongside the blue and light brown one already inside).