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Instead of housing hens in a coop, you can keep them in movable chicken tractors. These are pens that give chickens access to fresh grass and soil and also help fertilize the soil. Happy hens and happy soil!
We keep all of our chickens in chicken tractors. If you’ve never heard of them before, they are simply a movable cage that chickens live in part or full time. They’re caged so that the chickens don’t wander and are protected from predators. The reason that they’re called tractors is because the chickens can till the soil as you move the cage every few days. Moving the pen around also means that your birds will have access to fresh greens and soil to scratch at.
Chicken tractors can come in many different forms depending on your climate, the number and type of chickens you keep, available material, whether you will move them by hand or machine. This is an introduction to the ones we use along with how we use them on our homestead in Australia.
Wood vs Metal Chicken Tractors
All of our tractors are made using a metal frame, wire mesh, and roofing iron. There are two reasons for this, first, my husband is a boilermaker, so metal is his preferred material. More importantly, we have termites here, so if we used a wooden frame it would get eaten in a few years.
If you don’t have termites, a wooden frame is a good option as it is lighter and easier for non-welders to work with. However, we also didn’t want to make the frame too light (for example, made from plastic pipe) because the whole thing might blow away. I feel confident that our movable pens are very sturdy, will last for years and the hens are safe from predators.
Sizes of Our Chicken Tractors
We have two different sized tractors. We use the smaller ones for raising young chickens and for keeping two or three chickens separate. This can be handy for new chickens or if we’re figuring out who isn’t laying. The larger tractors comfortably house 6-8 hens and a rooster. The smaller tractors are about 1 m wide, 1 m high, and 3 m long. The larger tractors are about twice as wide and a little longer. They’re sized to fit on our car trailer because we had to move them 200 km to a new property after we built them.
More Chicken Resources
Free-Ranging from a Chicken Tractor
We usually let the chickens free-range from the chicken tractor, which means we only need to move the tractor about once or twice a week. The alternative is to leave the chickens locked in the tractor and move them every day. This has the advantage of concentrating the manure so a great idea if you’re preparing a garden. You also don’t have to go chasing around the paddock after chickens (usually roosters) that couldn’t find their way home when you’d rather be inside by the fire. I’m speaking from experience.
Usually, they all take themselves home at dusk and we lock them up overnight to keep out predators. I like to let them free-range because they forage more for themselves and eat less grain. If you move the tractor too far, the chickens won’t find it and will all sit huddled in the spot they last saw it, even if it’s only a few meters away, so we just move it the shortest possible distance onto fresh pasture, to avoid confusion.
Chicken Tractors Give Natural Fertilizer
We move the chickens over our pasture because we have plenty of space, but on a smaller property, they could be used over the lawn or in the garden. We can see a noticeable improvement in the pasture after the chickens have been over it. They are often used in Permaculture to till green manure or new garden beds. Linda Woodrow has a design for a “chook dome”, which is a movable lightweight dome that can be used in the garden.
Introducing Chickens to the Tractor
When we first put chickens in a new tractor, it can take them a little while to get used to the tractor. We leave them locked up for a week, moving the pen daily until they are allowed to free-range again. Otherwise, they tend to forget to go back to their tractor. They seem to get used to the tractor moving and learn to run with it. Occasionally a silly chicken will be (very briefly and noisily) trapped under the side or back of the tractor as we’re moving it. We have never hurt any chickens permanently, I think they just get a fright.
Moving the Chicken Tractors
Our small tractors are light enough for one person to move them, but the larger tractors are too heavy for me (my husband can move them). I use a trolley under the front to move the heavy ones. On an even larger scale, chicken tractors can be designed to be moved by a vehicle, such as a tractor, quad bike, or a ute (utility vehicle).
Chicken tractors Throughout the Year
We have a very mild climate, with only an occasional frost in winter, and no snow, so we are able to use our chicken tractors all year. In a colder climate, they would probably be too cold for the chickens. They could be used during the warmer months and the chickens housed in warmer accommodation over winter.
In summer, we get high temperatures (up to 95°F/35°C). That’s why we let the chickens out to free-range and they find their own cool spots. I wouldn’t like to leave them locked in during a hot summer day. If we have any chickens that are confined to their tractor during summer, we make sure that they are in permanent shade under trees. We also have a shade cloth attached to the mesh of each tractor to give extra shade. When we have young chickens in a tractor we cover the mesh with a tarpaulin so they don’t get wet from dew.
Liz Beavis lives on eight acres in southeast Queensland, Australia, with her husband Peter and two dogs. They have a passion for small-scale organic farming and producing and eating real food. They keep chickens, beef steers, two jersey cows, and a big vegetable garden. Liz writes a blog about their farm to both inspire and help others who are interested in self-sufficiency, sustainability, and Permaculture. Cover image of large chicken tractor courtesy of Flickr