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Fire Up the (Chicken) Tractor August 29, 2006

Posted by Laura in Farm.
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Back in the spring, Joe and I spent a number of weekends building our first “chicken tractor.” At the time, we had a lot of good reasons for designing it the way we did, but in the day-to-day use of it, we now forget a lot of the selling points.

Ours is built in a style reminiscent of the English versions of these portable coops (often called “arks”). Joe is a big fan of building STURDY things so the strength of the triangles appealed to him. One downside of going with this design is a lot of measuring and cutting, especially on the angles. You also must have a miter saw. Another is the weight that comes along with using so much wood.

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We used cow panels as the sides and covered them with chicken wire. Over 2/3 of it, we attached a tarp to give the chickens shade and protection from weather. We put eyebolts and tow ropes on both ends to use for pulling it to new plots of pasture.

Though we do occasionally cull our flock for table use, the majority of our chickens are laying hens rather than broilers. (We prefer to let broody hens hatch eggs and raise chicks to buying day-old chicks that will need constant attention from us). Our greatest need was for a tractor that included laying boxes, but our design with regards to the boxes was seriously flawed. They should have been right inside the door for easy collection, but for some crazy reason, we put them on the cross-piece in the middle. We did know they would be uncomfortable for us to reach, but we also figured we could send in the short kids to retrieve them.

In the end it didn’t matter because the hens wouldn’t use them anyway. They didn’t much resemble the boxes they were accustomed to, so that may explain it. The hens laid the eggs on the ground in the grass and used the boxes to sleep (and relieve themselves) despite the roosting rails provided.

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(As you can see, the ones inside think they want out and the ones outside look longingly in.)

Not using the nesting boxes actually turned out to be okay because then no one had to go inside to retrieve eggs. We had designed the short end pieces out of 2 x 4s and the long side pieces out of 2 x 6s- this allowed us to drag the tractor more easily. We also angled the ends of the sides to let them slip over uneven ground better. The 2 inch gap on the bottom of the ends let the tractor pass over the eggs as it was moved to fresh grass (but also required us to block the ends with scrap wood to keep chickens in and predators out). This design does have a few plusses, but it is also heavy and time-consuming to build.

When we went on vacation, kind friends offered to feed the animals for us. We wanted to streamline the process for them to save time, so we put all the chickens back in the henhouse. After we returned, the heat and fatigue of the first-trimester of pregnancy squashed my motivation to start dragging that thing around again. Only last week did we finally put it back into service.

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When deciding on which chickens to house in the tractor, we settled on 2 criteria- ones we especially wanted to protect (the “special ones” and the two turkey poults) and ones that wouldn’t roost in the henhouse at night anyway. It wasn’t too difficult to get the ones still sleeping in the barn stall or the turkey poults. The others were a bit more trouble. The other “teenagers” that had hatched in the barn claim a tree beside the house as their bed. A 20 foot tall evergreen.

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Joe had previously tried to climb it to retrieve them after they had roosted one night so we could give some to friends. He learned the hard way that while those branches are long, they aren’t sturdy. The only way I could get them down this time was to jump up, grab hold of the limbs, and pull them down until I could reach a bird. Most of them were just smart enough to settle on limbs too high for me. They still sleep there.

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After a week in the tractor now, the residents still haven’t quite gotten used to the daily move. There is much protest and crazed flapping each time I pull it the 12 feet to new grass. I have to be careful to move very slowly and not to pin them since they run to the far end and get pulled along each time. Surely they’ll get it soon.

We need to build several more tractors, but we are still debating the merits of different styles. I think we are leaning toward a hoop type next time. The present one probably will become our “nursery tractor,” a broiler pen, or possibly one that we will use (without moving it at all) to create new garden beds.

 

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Comments»

1. New and Improved Chicken Tractor « The Farm Chronicles of Blessed Acres - September 29, 2006

[…] We’ve been working a couple of hours here and there for a few weeks now on a second “chicken tractor.” Our first one is still in service, but we wanted to try a different design this time. We opted for a “hoophouse” style using PVC pipes for the “ribs” and wood for the frame and nesting boxes. Another important change was the addition of wheels to hopefully make this one easier to move around the pastures. It’s been in use one day and already we’ve made notes about how to build the next one differently. […]


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