Most people know what a chicken coop is and have at least some idea of what it is used for – a coop provides permanent shelter for a flock and protects them from wind, rain, cold, and predators. Fewer people, though, may be familiar with the chicken tractor.
Despite what the name suggests, a chicken tractor is not a piece of farm equipment driven by poultry; instead, it is an alternative or additional form of chicken housing that can provide some of the benefits of allowing your hens to free range, but with fewer risks.
Essentially, a chicken tractor is a mobile chicken coop with attached run, usually on wheels and often small enough to be moved by hand. Because of this, they are, if anything, even easier to build than a traditional coop and run.
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In this article, we will go over what a chicken tractor is, how it should be used, and most importantly, we will give you step-by-step instructions to build your own chicken tractor.
What is a chicken tractor?
A chicken tractor is a small, mobile chicken shelter that can be moved around to different parts of a keeper’s land from day to day or week to week.
They are called chicken tractors because farmers can use them to serve something of a similar purpose to traditional tractors; the chickens living inside them can churn up the land, aerating the soil; pull up and eat weeds; and eat bugs and other pests.
As the popularity of chicken keeping has expanded in recent decades, so has the use of chicken tractors, and you can use one even if you are not cultivating any land or growing any crops.
For many people, chicken tractors offer an appealing middle ground between letting your flock free range and keeping them cooped up in the same small run all day, every day.
They let your chickens get the mental enrichment and nutritional benefits of foraging and exploring new places, but do not leave them as exposed to predators, accidents, or wandering off.
What are the benefits of a chicken tractor?
One of the biggest benefits of a chicken tractor is that it gives your chickens the nutritional benefits of free ranging, but without the same risks from predators and accidents.
Chickens in a tractor will have new terrain to explore every day, which means they will not pick over the populations of plants and insects the way they do in a traditional run.
Having a wide variety of plants and insects in their diets, in addition to chicken feed, produces healthier, happier chickens, who in turn produce more nutritionally complete eggs and more flavorful meat.
Chickens in a tractor will not get as much exercise and mental stimulation as true free rangers, but they also will not be in danger from birds of prey, especially if you add a shelter or cover to the tractor. The tractor will also stop them from wandering off into a neighbor’s yard or a nearby road, which can have negative consequences ranging from an unhappy neighbor to a flattened chicken.
Chicken tractors, as their name indicates, also have benefits for anyone who cultivates their land. By moving your tractor methodically across your fields, you can reap the benefits of aerated soil, fewer weeds and pests, and all-natural chicken poop fertilizer, while doing very little of the work yourself.
Who should use a chicken tractor?
Chicken tractors work best for people with larger plots of land and smaller flocks. If you have a particularly large flock, a chicken tractor big enough to hold all of your hens safely and comfortably will start to be too big to move without a vehicle.
If your yard is too small, your hens will pick it over quite quickly even in a tractor, at which point they will stop reaping much of the benefit of the tractor, and will also have destroyed your lawn.
People who cannot or do not want to build fences on or around their land should also consider the chicken tractor. It may be impractical or against building codes to erect a tall fence that will keep flighty chickens in or out of a garden or road, but a chicken tractor will contain your birds, while also being small enough not to run afoul of most building codes or homeowners’ associations.
Depending on the type and number of predators in your area and your proximity to other hazards, you might find a chicken tractor is not worth the trouble, and you would be better off just letting your girls free-range. That said, pretty much any flock will benefit from getting more exercise and variety in their routines and diets, so there is not really any chicken owner with outdoor space who would not reap some reward from setting up a chicken tractor.
How to Build a Chicken Tractor
1. Choose a plan or design.
Which plan is best for your homestead will depend on a variety of factors, including your land, your flock, and your vision for your tractor’s purpose.
If it is intended as permanent chicken housing, you will want to find a design that prioritizes stability and security, potentially at the expense of mobility.
If the tractor is intended instead to give your birds some enrichment outside of their coop and run without going all the way to free ranging, you can choose a design that swings more the other way.
It is important to be honest with yourself, though, about what you can reasonably build, maintain, and move. Building a fancier, larger chicken tractor will not benefit your hens at all if you are then unable to ever move it.
2. Find your materials
With a chicken tractor, it is important to find a balance between building a sturdy, safe structure and building a light, easily moveable one.
For my part, I prefer to choose a minimalist design over lighter, weaker materials, but each keeper will have their own needs to consider.
For one thing, if you live in an area that is prone to high winds or is known to have large predators like bears around, you may need to choose heavier materials just to keep your tractor on the ground, as both winds and bears are more than capable of flipping a light, unanchored chicken tractor over.
Wood and plastic are both viable options for a chicken tractor; wood tends to be heavier and easier to work with, while plastic, usually PVC pipe, has the advantage of being sturdy but extremely light.
The one thing you want to avoid is pressure-treated lumber. This is often recommended for outdoor projects because of how well it withstands things like termites and the elements, but over time the copper compounds used to treat the wood can leach out of the lumber and into the soil.
This can be damaging to both your chickens and your fields, so I would avoid it unless you have a serious termite problem or extremely high humidity.
3. Construct your frame.
Building a chicken tractor frame is fairly straightforward as far as woodworking projects go. Be sure when you build the frame, though, that it is the right size for the number of chickens you have or will have in the tractor.
If you are not sure, err on the side of too big, rather than too small. Although overly large spaces can stress out your chickens, this is less dangerous than the violence and disease that can come from jamming too many birds into too small a space.
Plus, you can always make a large space feel smaller by adding toys or furniture, but you cannot make a small space feel bigger without getting rid of some of your birds.
How much space you will need will depend on the size and temperament of your birds; however, a good rule of thumb is to plan for 10 square feet per bird in open space, and four square feet per bird in enclosed ones.
If you have any roosters, you will need to up your space calculations for them, since they are usually larger than hens.
4. Build the sheltered portion.
How big and how sturdy the sheltered portion of your tractor is will depend on whether you intend to use it as a sometime shelter in addition to a traditional coop or a permanent alternative to one.
If it is just a temporary shelter, you can go fairly minimal with the sheltered portion which will save you time in building and money on materials, as well as making your overall tractor lighter and therefore easier to move.
In this case, the main purpose of the shelter is to provide shade for your girls in hot weather and protection from the rain.
There is no real need to add a floor or worry much about ventilation, as the birds likely will not spend much time in there.
You may want to add nesting boxes, though, to give yourself an easy place to look for and collect their eggs. If you are intending the tractor to be your girls’ permanent home, your building standards will have to be much higher – basically the same as a traditional chicken coop.
5. Cover the frame and add fencing
The gold standard for fencing on any kind of chicken shelter is hardware mesh, not chicken wire.
Chicken wire is ideal for keeping birds out of your garden or away from the road, but its holes are too large to keep predators and pests like weasels and rats out of the coop or the tractor.
Use hardware mesh over the entirety of your chicken tractor to keep out climbing pests and small birds, which do not pose a direct threat to your hens or their eggs, but can steal food and, worst of all, spread parasites and diseases like avian flu to your birds.
One of the disadvantages of chicken tractors is that you cannot bury to hardware mesh to keep out burrowing predators, the same way you would with a traditional coop and run, which is why many chicken keepers only use tractors as a daytime shelter and not a permanent one.
6. Add wheels, handles, and transport mechanisms.
How you move your chicken tractor will depend on how large it is, how strong you and/or your available team is, how far you have to move it, what kind of terrain you are working on, and what equipment you have available.
Unless you have a very small tractor being moved only over short, flat distances, I would recommend adding wheels. These will not only make it easier to lift and move your tractor; it will also make it easier to move over rough terrain or other obstacles, like rocks or sticks.
It is also a good idea to add handles or something similar so you and anyone helping you can lift and lower the tractor without getting your hands stuck or injured.
For larger tractors that need to be moved long distances, you could also add a hitch or another mechanism to allow it to be dragged by a tractor or four-wheeler.
Just be sure that whatever you add does not affect the tractor’s ability to sit flush with the ground; otherwise; you will make it easier for predators to get into the tractor and for the chickens to get out.
7. Check your work.
The same rule applies for chicken tractors as applied in your high school algebra class: Always double check your work! There are several ways to do this, but the important thing is to make sure the tractor is stable and sturdy before you let your birds into it.
I always like to go over my shelter with a hose on full blast, to make sure it is fully waterproof. You will also want to try it out on a few different locations on your property, to check that the frame always sits flush with the ground.
This will also let you know if the tractor is prone to rolling on hilly or inclined terrain; if that is the case, you can put in wheel blocks or add a locking mechanism to the wheels to prevent them from rolling.
My final test is always to leave the tractor out for a while – overnight if your hens are going to be in it overnight – with chicken feed or some other attractant in it. If the food is untouched, you will know the tractor is predator-proof. If not, you will have a better idea of which weaknesses to shore up before you trust the tractor with your birds.
Despite the rather silly imagery conjured up by the phrase “chicken tractor,” they are actually an incredibly useful and versatile device that can give your chickens some much-needed stimulation and variety, while also keeping them safe and secure.
Best of all, they are simple, cheap, and easy to build yourself! While, as with coops, pre-fabricated chicken tractors are widely available, anyone worried about the cost of a chicken tractor can build one themselves for almost nothing, regardless of their carpentry skills.
Most of the materials needed for a chicken tractor can be scavenged or salvaged for very little, especially if you have leftover lumber and hardware mesh from already building or outfitting a traditional coop. So give a chicken tractor a try! You might find it to be the chicken keeper’s second-best friend – after the chickens, of course.