How to build a chicken tractor :: version 2.0

A recent wind storm turned our chicken tractor into a kite, throwing it 30′ away.

All the birds were OK, just wondering where their roof went. I retrieved my son from school early, bought the largest fishing nets we could find, and tracked down our birds wandering around the pasture before the daily sundown coyote pack visit.

Chicken Tractor Version 1.0 was damaged enough to warrant building an entirely new portable coop. So I broke out the long list of change ideas I had been collecting and designed a new tractor.

Improvement goals for new Chicken Tractor Version 2.0:
  1. Aesthetics (for us and neighbors)
  2. Wind management for entire coop + nest boxes
  3. Coyote/Raccoon proof
  4. Weight for daily movement
  5. Manageable trap door and access to nest boxes for my kids
  6. Cleaner eggs

Primary changes:
  1. Flat roof. There are zero flat areas in my back yard, so a flat roof will still shed rain well since the entire coop is always at an angle. The new flat roof allowed me to get away from tarps, which never stay tight nor look attractive for long.
  2. Solar electric fence to replace the hardware mesh skirt. The skirt *is* effective against coyotes; we’ve found their scat right next to the coop several times. But it catches on the pasture grass and makes daily movement of the tractor difficult for my wife.
  3. Horizontal access door (replacing a vertical accessible hatch). You can see it in the accompanying photo, held in place by carabiner lock bungee cords to thwart the raccoons. See additional detail photos in the nearby photostream. The nest buckets are bolted to this door, which keep s them upright even in strong wind. My seven year old can lift off this panel to retrieve the eggs by himself. With the nest buckets secured, we can use straw rather than sand in the base, which makes for much cleaner eggs.
  4. 4′ additional roost space with 100% of it under roof. Old design only had 8′ of roost space with 2′ open to the sky (rain).
Suggestions for your own efforts:
  1. Do a dry fit before applying pipe cement and drilling holes.
  2. Remember overall lengths increase when adding fittings by about 1”. Adjust your pipe lengths accordingly.
  3. I considered using cattle panels, but at 36 lbs for every 50″ x 16′ section, they would add too much weight. Same for wood versus water pipe. Weight considerations drove alot of our decisions.
Materials list:
  1. Corrugated plastic roof panels
  2. Bolts to secure panels (2″ with wide washers and locknuts)
  3. Silicon to make drill holes for bolts waterproof
  4. Water pipe (1″ schedule 40)
  5. Pipe fittings (esoteric ones here)
  6. Chicken wire (2′ roll)
  7. Solar electric fence
  8. 17 gauge wire for electric fence
  9. 14″ screwdriver to act as a ground for electric fence
  10. Zip ties (lots and lots)
  11. Pull ropes with clamp-on end hooks
  12. Ground stakes used for dogs to secure coop in high wind

The progression of a chicken tractor

Of our 14 layers in our chicken tractor, we’re getting 11 eggs/day during the warmer weeks and 7 eggs/day during the colder weather. Given that our springtime weather fluctuates from 60 degree days for a week down to snow flurries the next, these birds are likely confused a bit.

But given that our family’s daily intake for eggs is only 6 eggs/day, my son has already started his first official business selling the excess eggs to neighbors, $4/dozen. Not bad for organic eggs delivered to your door by a cute kid.

But all is not well the the Great Chicken Tractor. These birds have taken the idea of a pecking order to Olympic heights. One bird is not only clearly the Big Layer, she’s also the Big Bitch. the vengeance with which she pursues the lowest 50 percentile on the pecking order is amazing.

In fact, it’s likely to get her killed. If she keeps this up and one of the lower order birds gets pecked to death, the Big Bitch is going on our dinner table the next night. 75% of our birds have completely bald butts and throat areas. Significantly more feather loss than what molting might account for. And that’s how I ended up with purple hands for a week.

I found a product from England that both heals and leaves a bad-tasting film on the chickens’ skin/feathers. The birds are now running around with purple butts – which is hilarious – but I failed to read the instructions that the stuff seriously stains. Explaining my hands to the folks at the dojo was a bit embarrassing. I finally just settled on, “I was painting my chickens purple, of course.” when asked about it. Got some funny looks, to be sure.

Any other thoughts on excessive pecking behavior? Shoot me an email or add a comment. Thus far we’ve explored diet, space, weather, and stress. I’ve settled on stress, since we find coyote scat right next to the coop on a regular basis.

First eggs

Ah, the joys of “maiden eggs” (as Joel Salatin brands these small pullet eggs). We finally get to enjoy the benefits of the chicken tractor investment.

Two double yolks so far!

Portable chicken coop additions

Our first couple of winter-style storms blew through recently. Had a chance to observe the effects on portable chicken coop.

There was no issue with the coop trying to turn into a kite via the tarp and sail off. But I found that if I added another section of tarp on the SW corner (the direction our storms come from), it served two purposes. The new tarp both stops the strong storm wind from chilling the chickens and also provides shade for the longer days of late summer, when the sun can still get quite hot.

In anticipation of our 15 birds beginning to lay eggs for the first time, we also added a few “nest boxes” to the coop as well. These are simply upside down 5 gallon buckets with doors cut into them.

Sand + dichotomous earth on the bottom gives enough weight to keep the buckets upright. The spikes on top keep the chickens from roosting and pooping all over them. I admitted defeat and used store-bought spikes after trying twice to make my own from bamboo sticks.

Injured chicken + chicken tractor = ?

One of our Dominiques was getting her butt kicked – literally – by the rest of the chickens a couple of weeks ago. By the time we got to her she had a seriously bloody butt and no feathers left back there.

After separating her and her brood sister off in a temporary pen, I begin pondering solutions. What to do with an injured chicken when you are relying on a portable chicken tractor for the flock, rather than a stationary coop?

I was puzzled for a few days, almost ready to build a second much smaller chicken tractor (and effectively double my daily chicken chores), when I decided to instead try a simple modification to the existing 10′ square tractor.

Here’s a video of the modification (just a line of pipe + wire to separate off an 18″ sliver of the tractor) and the resulting standoff once we reintegrated the birds. Imagine the Gunsmoke theme, or perhaps when the Outsiders lined up against the rival gang. The chickens lined up along the new partition, flapping their wings, pecking at the wire, and giving each other the evil eye. It was hilarious. Well, “hilarious” in a chicken standoff kind of way.

I named the injured chicken Pony Boy. Stay golden, Pony Boy.

Chicken tractor :: learnings thus far

Learnings after two months of use with our Salatin-inspired chicken tractor:

  • You can’t care too much about your lawn if you use a chicken tractor on it. Even with our portable dust bath box – which they seem to like quite a bit – you are going to get holes in your lawn. I’m currently going around once a week sprinkling seed and a bit of seed starter soil mix on those holes.
  • Giving a quick rinse to the ground that you just moved the coop from gives a big head start to the droppings dissolving into the ground. Important when you still have two little kids wanting to run and play on that lawn.
  • The hardware cloth skirt actually works to keep digging predators at bay. The PVC pipe on the outer edge allows it to float with the tractor when moving it, rather than getting bogged down. This would definitely *not* work with normal chicken wire (too flexible).
  • In this hot, hot summer I’m having to water this portion of our lawn to keep it alive so the chickens can eat on it. Normally I’d let it go brown. Adding the cost of our water and electricity (water pump) to this project is not exciting.
  • We’ve added a separate “chicken scraps” bowl to our kitchen counter that sits beside the “compost scraps” bowl. We’re diverting apple cores, bread crusts, etc to the chickens to supplement their feed.
  • We just planted comfrey, which performs several minor miracles, even though most folks think of it as a weed. We’re using it specifically to accelerate our compost piles and as a chicken feed. Hey, grow your own free chicken feed! Hat tip to the Deliberate Agrarian for the comfrey knowledge transfer.
  • Tying a rock to the edge of the tractor allows the chickens to peck on something hard, wearing down their always-growing beaks.
Changes for next version of chicken tractor (which I hope to not build for at least five years):
  1. Weld two sets of small metal tubes together for the trapdoor joints; the PVC ones already broke. Still OK, though, since zip ties hold the hinge in place.
  2. Two trap doors instead of one. When we place everything inside (2 nest buckets, 1 waterer, 1 feeder, 1 dust bath box), that one quadrant gets a bit hectic. Although it does allow the other three quadrants more open space for the chickens to scoot around in.
  3. Add a temporary divide wall to section off a portion of the coop when introducing (or reintegrating) new birds into the flock. I’ve currently got one of our Dominiques off by herself recovering from almost getting pecked to death by the others. I’m thinking of segmenting off a couple of feet down one side of the tractor just for her when reintegrating her.

Chicken breeds

For those of you who asked, we selected our current chicken breeds (Speckled Sussex, Barred Rock, and Dominique) for quietness, egg productivity, cold hardiness, and being OK with confinement. These chickens will spend the entire winter outdoors in the tractor.

I’m not using artificial heat nor lights to increase egg production, so we’ll move from .85 eggs/day/chicken down to .25 eggs/day/chicken in the dark winter months. I know of several other chicken folks in our area who successfully overwinter their chickens outside with no loss of life. The chickens seem to become stronger and do fine.

Other breeds that passed the above four qualifications include: Americana, Plymouth Rock, Australorp, Faverolle, Red Star, Black Star, and Wyanlotte. However, I’ve read some conflicting chicken blogs that state Plymouth Rock and Wyanlotte do *not* like confinement. I suspect we can get around this since they get fresh grass and a new view daily.

We don’t have a rooster because I value quietness (as do my neighbors) and I don’t want fertilized eggs. We have enough local friends with roosters that we can replicate the flock fairly easily.

Chicken tractor 101

You’ll see I’m pursuing several of my original seven projects in parallel. While I’ve been talking to water sub-contractors re: the cistern, we’ve added chickens to our lives.

For the first time, I don’t feel like I’m wasting my time when I mow my lawn. As Joel Salatin explains, he’s become a grass farmer, which then takes care of all the grazing animals (and other aspects) on his farm.

We’ve got 15 egg laying chickens (aka “layers”) in a 10 foot square Salatin-inspired chicken tractor. I found four different styles of tractors locally and on the web, plus some additional research about the digging preferences of coyotes and raccoons, and did a mash-up to create our current tractor design.

The main addition I made to other designs was the hardware cloth skirt to thwart digging predators and the water ski style ropes on each side to easy portability. See additional photos of the tractor and the various components like a portable dust box to the right in the streaming photo collage.

The chicken tractor gets moved to fresh grass daily. It’s light enough that my thin but strong wife can drag it as well. I tried hard to design one made of something renewable like bamboo, but since it rests 100% of the time on the ground, I would have to drench the bamboo with toxic chemicals to ward off mildew and rot.

I ended up using the dreaded PVC, which is terrible for our environment and health when created and when it leaches into our food and water. Because we do not get extensive, intense sun, this PVC will remain stable for years. But I still hate using the damn stuff.

This tractor is clearly version 1.0. I’ve already got a list going of things I would change for the next one, including the addition of a second trap door. When we add three 5-gallon buckets for them to lay eggs in, that one area under the only trap door is going to get crowded. And we’ll see how this tarp design survives a few snowfalls this winter.

Why a chicken tractor rather than a coop?
  1. Fresh grass daily means healthy happy chickens = healthy eggs = healthy family.
  2. Moving the coop daily means no buildup of droppings, thus no smell nor diseases.
  3. My lawn is finally useful. 🙂