Here’s what to look for in a good chicken tractor – whether buying one or building your own…
With the modernization of pastured poultry, chicken tractors have become very popular. In case you’re not quite clear on what a chicken tractor is, it’s basically a mobile chicken coop, sometimes with a run attached, though not always. This allows your chickens to enjoy fresh green pasture, while protecting them from predators. Chicken tractors are commonly used by small pastured poultry operations, but they also come in very handy for individual homesteaders.
As you move your tractor (usually either daily or every few days), your chickens have access to fresh forage, help control bugs and slug populations, and fertilize your yard. If you are trying to clear a new patch of land for a garden, you can leave your chicken tractor in place until they have scratched down the area; otherwise, you will want to move your tractor at least every few days.
There are lots of chicken tractor designs you can find online for building your own – from modest to ultra-fancy – and you can also buy them pre-made. Either way you go, there are 4 basic components to any good chicken tractor:
1.) Nesting Area
This is where your birds will lay their eggs and sleep at night. Typically resembling a small shed, the nesting area needs to be weathertight and predator-proof with a door or hatch to access eggs from the outside of the chicken tractor (and give it a weekly cleaning) and a smaller hatch on the opposite side that allows the chickens to move back and forth from the chicken run. The access points should be latched to prevent predators from sneaking in at night.
Inside you need a minimum of one 12-by-12 inch straw-filled nest box for every four birds, and 2 square feet of floor space per bird. The nest boxes are typically elevated off the floor of the structure, so part of the floor space allocation can be below the nest boxes. An elevated roosting bar is also a must so the birds can fulfill their instinctual need to sleep off the ground. Plan for at least 8 inches of roosting bar per bird.
2.) Chicken Run
This is where the birds will roam around during the day. The chicken run is open on the bottom for the birds to forage, but completely enclosed with chicken wire on the top and sides for predator protection. Plan on at least 4 to 5 square feet per bird in the run. The nesting structure is often elevated above chicken run, so the birds can forage underneath. If this is the case, you’ll need a ramp (a piece of 2×6 lumber is perfect) to provide access to the nesting area—screw thin strips of wood every 6 inches along the top of the ramp to provide traction in wet weather.
The chicken run and nesting area are typically built around a single wooden frame, either triangular or rectangular, which provides a structure to attach the chicken wire to. Often, the base of the frame consists of a pair of stout beams which act like skis to slide the chicken tractor across the grass… Though this isn’t necessary if you plan to mount wheels on your chicken tractor (see below).
A heavy-duty rope, cable, or chain is attached to the front end of the frame for pulling, either by hand, or for larger models, with a four-wheeler or tractor. Alternatively, attach long handles to the front of the frame and move it around like a giant wheelbarrow. Wheels or not, the lighter the chicken tractor, the easier it is to move around, so keep this in mind when selecting building materials…
Wheels are optional on the smallest chicken tractors, but are necessary on larger models. Depending on the size of your chicken tractor, use the replacement wheels sold for lawnmowers (smallest), wheelbarrows (medium-sized), or garden carts (larger) at most hardware stores; the heaviest chicken tractors will require a tire made for a tractor, trailer, or vehicle.
One option is to mount wheels on all four corners, though this results in the frame being lifted off the ground; and if there is more than a 2- or 3-inch gap between the frame in the ground, small chickens may wiggle out and stray dogs may be tempted to burrow under. Yet if the ground is uneven, a low clearance chicken tractor is difficult to move around. If you want your chicken tractor higher off the ground, fill the gap with heavy blocks of wood whenever the chicken tractor is “parked.”
A more common approach is to use only two wheels, mounted at the heavy end of the frame where the nest structure is, with the opposite end of the frame resting on the ground. That way when you lift the front end the frame up to move it you’ll have good clearance on that end for maneuvering, while the wheels support the rear, heavier end just off the ground (much like a wheelbarrow or garden cart)…