Dateline: 7 August 2006
Many people who visit this blog know what a chicken tractor is, and some even have one or more of them. For those who don’t know, a chicken tractor is a moveable cage for chickens. The cage has a top and sides but no bottom—it sets directly on the ground and is moved every day to a fresh patch of grass. The idea behind a chicken tractor is that the birds can supplement their grain ration with fresh greens and bugs and worms and stones for their gizzards. They also get plenty of fresh air and sunshine. Birds raised in a chicken tractor get all the good things that industrial chickens—those raised by the millions in factory farms—do not get. As a result, the quality of a harvested factory bird pales in comparison to that of a properly raised chicken-tractor bird.
I built myself a chicken tractor eight years ago and I have used it to raise birds for my family every season since then. Two years ago, I built a second tractor. Based on my experience and observations, I believe the perfect chicken tractor should meet several key requirements. It should be inexpensive and easy to build by someone with basic handyman tools and skills. It should be strong and durable, yet lightweight and easy to move by hand, but not so light that a gust of wind blows it away. Furthermore, the perfect chicken tractor should be varmint proof, provide shade and protection from the rain and, at the same time, be well ventilated. Finally, the perfect chicken tractor design should allow the chicken farmer (that’s you) to easily feed and water the critters.
There are all kinds of homemade chicken tractors out there. Some are better than others but, as far as I’ve been able to determine, all have their shortcomings. In other words, the perfect chicken tractor has yet to be built. Nevertheless, you don’t need a perfect chicken tractor to raise your own wholesome, tasty birds. Which brings me to my own chicken tractors....
The photo above is of the chicken tractor I made eight years ago. It measures five-feet by 12-feet. The bottom frame is pressure treated 2x4 fastened together at the corners with 3” drywall screws. 2x4 angle braces on each corner (visible in an upcoming photo) keep the frame square and make it strong.
The five hoops are 3/4” PVC pipe, available from any hardware store. Poultry netting covers the whole thing, except for the one end which is waferboard. After eight seasons (outside for 12 months of the year), and several repairs, the waferboard door was finally no good and we replaced it this season with another of 1/2” CDX plywood. I also reinforced the waferboard in other ways as needed to get it through another season.
The tarp on the top is a heavy duty one I salvaged from my town’s junk days. The ends of the tarp have a 2x4 on them. Stiff wire bent into hooks hangs from the top of the tractor and slips into screw eyes in the 2x4 to hold it up, as shown here in these photos. When unhooked, the weight of the 2x4 attached to the tarp holds it down and helps seal along the bottom edge.
I put the tarp sides down at night when slinking varmints are typically on the prowl. And I fill in any gaps around the bottom perimeter with scrap pieces of 2x4 and plywood, as shown in the following photos. I also leave my dog, Annie, outside to help deter night predators.
The pail on top gravity feeds water down through a hose to a Plasson bell waterer, which is visible in the next picture.
In the photo above you can see the hose coming down from the bucket to the waterer which is suspended from the top of the tractor with a length of wire. So the waterer rides right along with the tractor when it is moved and I can adjust the height of the rim to accommodate the chickens as they grow.
The 10” wheels on the one end of the tractor were purchased at Home Depot. They are simply bolted to the 2x4 bottom with 1/2” bolts. At first, the tractor had no wheels. I moved it by pulling a rope attached to the other end and it was a tough pull. There is no way that my kids or my wife could move it in a controlled manner. The addition of those two wheels made the tractor incredibly easy to pull around. Even with the bucket of water full (around 30 pounds) my wife can now movethe tractor.
If you’ve never had a chicken tractor you might think that moving it would be no problem if you hook on to it with a small tractor (the motorized kind). Well, you certainly can move it easily with such a tractor but you’ll also probably run over the birds. That’s because they are not the smartest of creatures and some will not get along like you want them to. That being the case, you want to move the chicken tractor with some finesse, and that means by hand.
The only problem with the wheels on the one end is that they elevate the frame off the ground a bit. The space provides an entry point for small varmints. But the varmints are typically a night problem and between the 2x4 tarp ends and a few scrap blocks of wood, any spaces can be easily sealed for the night.
As you look inside the open door in the photo, you’ll see a feeder along the one side. That feeder is nothing more than a section of inexpensive plastic drain pipe. I cut a slot down the length and screwed round wood plugs in the ends. Then I screwed the length into the side of the tractor. it moves along with the frame. I can fill the trough feeders (on each side) from outside by pouring feed from a scoop through the wire.
Here’s another view of the tractor. You can see the wheel, the bottom frame, and the Plasson waterer. If you observe closely, you will see two angled braces. They extend from each side of the bottom frame up to the top of the door end of the tractor. These braces are made of lightweight pine furring strips and they provide considerable rigidity to the entire unit.
The photo above clearly shows the 2x4 angle brace in the bottom corner. The chicks are lined up at the feeders. The pull rope is visible in the left of the picture. This photo also shows the chicken wire (a.k.a., poultry netting) held to the hoops with pieces of twisted wire.
The above photo is another chicken tractor variation that I made two years ago. It is akin to the tractors used by joel Salatin but it is much smaller. The tractor measures five-feet by eight-feet and is 28-inches high. The frame is made of 1-1/2” by 1-1/2” pressure treated wood. It has the same watering system and the same kind of tarp, permanently attached in the back, with 2x4 weighted drop-down sides. The top opens (as shown in the photo) for easy access. I have a feeder that I put in and take out when I want to move the tractor. This tractor has no wheels and a pull rope on both ends
In the final analysis, my Salatin style chicken tractor with the big door on top looks really nice and it’s built incredibly solid but the thing is way too heavy to move by hand. The other drawback is that it is not very big. Maximum full-grown chicken capacity is around 25 birds.
My hoop tractor, as homely as it appears, is a better tractor to work with. In fact, when I look at my previously stated criteria for the perfect chicken tractor, my eight-year-old hoop unit comes close. The only real drawback is the feeder troughs. They need to be longer and I think I could come up with a little better design for them. Capacity for the hoop tractor is 35 to 40 birds, which is good enough for a small producer like me.
One of these years, I’ll build another version of chicken tractor. It will be different from the hoop tractor I already have, but not much different.
Speaking of chickens, here are links to some other blog essays that you may find interesting and useful:
Talkin' Bout My Chicken Tractor (Part 2)
Backyard Poultry Processing With My 11-year-Old Son
My Whizbang Plucker Story
Frequently Asked Questions About The Whizbang Plucker
Introducing My Deluxe Homemade Chicken Scalder
The Next Best Thing To A Whizbang Chicken Plucker
How To Butcher A Chicken
My Chicken Plucker Parts Business
FREE Chicken Feed
Turkeys in Tractors & Comfrey For Feed