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New Chicken Tractor April 10, 2008

Posted 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).



1. Dreamer - April 14, 2008

Very interesting. I thought you free-ranged all your birds. But then I do remember seeing a picture of a coop once.

This is something I’d like to try (I can just see my neighbor’s horrified expressions now), but I’m not sure how our city feels about it (I worry about this because the aforementioned horrified neighbors would probably call the city at some point). The city codes state that a coop has to be so far from the property lines and living structures on adjacent properties, etc. The rules are definitely not written with a chicken tractor in mind.

How many birds do you typically house in one tractor? How many birds do you have in total? How much time do they require for care?

2. Laura - April 14, 2008

I have heard/read that concern many times. Most neighbors can be won over with the offer of occasional eggs as long as the chickens aren’t noisy or smelly, both of which can be managed.

There are SO MANY coop designs out there. Some are simple movable things like ours. Lots of others would take prizes for originality and attractiveness. Try madcitychickens.com for starters- it’s all about city dwellers keeping chickens in the back yard. At the bottom there is a link to coop designs.

The manure (smell) could be easily be managed with cedar shavings and a couple times a year you put it all in the compost for your garden.

The remaining issue is usually noise. I’d recommend Ameraucana hens for a several reasons. All of mine have been quiet. Several (like Roxanne) have been very personable. And best of all, they lay blue-green eggs! Try finding those at the grocery store! Your girls would really enjoy the birds if you can convince your husband. If you raise them from chicks, feeding them from your hand and all, they can be very pet-like. I can think of a few other breeds that I think would make good backyard additions if you think you’d like to try it.

The number of birds per tractor/coop depends on the amount of space inside. For a 4 x 12 coop, where they remain inside all the time, I like to give them lots of room and roosting space. I typically, put no more than 12 birds inside. Most people would probably stock twice that many. We currently have in the ballpark of 75 chickens, including roosters and meat birds. We don’t plan to keep that many year round. A family of 4 probably wouldn’t need more than 3 hens to get the number of eggs that could be used. The hens average out to about one egg every 36 hours during their peak laying time. We have more eggs than we can handle right now and I took 8 dozen to church to give away last night.

As far as the time commitment, that can be as little as 5 minutes a day (food and fresh water in a coop that is stationary) or as long as you want to spend. Once a week, you’d probably wash the food and water pans, add more cedar shavings (or whatever you choose to use) to the floor, and refill nesting material in the laying boxes. Twice a year, you’d probably shovel out all the accumulated litter to add it to the compost.

Hope that helps!

3. Ms.Anne - April 20, 2008

Neat – I like the chicken tractor. I’ve been playing with several ideas and am currently using a tractor that I inherited. Most of what I have tried has either been too heavy or not durable enough. I think I owuld like to try this design.

4. Mrs. Ducks - August 19, 2011

I really like your idea of “Keeping it light” I have built some “heavy” coops over the years and our last one wasn’t preditor proof. I mean, we have smart raccoons that dig under the coop and rip through the chicken wire to get our chickens. I don’t want to get rid of my ducks & chickens but they can’t keep living in my house everytime we need to ore-build another coop. I think I am going to try to make one like yours and see how that works.

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