The chicken tractor is one of those brilliant permaculture ideas, that we were thinking about to apply on our farm for a long time. What it is, is a chicken coop, that can be moved around. The name “tractor” comes from the idea, that your chickens can weed, plow and fertilize your soil. This is exactly what a tractor does on a conventional farm. Once your chicken are done with the job and run short on food, you just move their living space to the next spot. Previously we had our chicken in a closed coop and we would let them free at least 2 times in a day. Thus they could happily forage where ever they pleased. We really love the idea to have them free, wondering around the farm. This way we could also be sure, that they get all important nutrients from plants, slugs and insects. But there was one big problem in that concept – the attraction of our vegetable garden… Of course they were always very keen to enter the garden. So much of our crops got lost in a few brief moments, when we didn’t have an eye on our chickens.
Advantages of the chicken tractor
We really needed a solution for this problem, but fencing the garden was not an easy option for us. The land is terraced and we have lot’s of precious plants scattered all over the place. We were hesitant with the chicken tractor idea for a while, just because we didn’t want to keep our animals always in a cage. But then, researching the topic a bit deeper, we realized, that the concept of a blissful chicken life is more complex than we thought. It’s not a huge space that really makes them happy. What they do need is a constant fresh ground to feed on. They can be totally satisfied in a smaller place, as long as there is always something new to forage. So the decision was made!
How to build a chicken tractor
Before we started building, we asked a few friends that had this concept implemented already. We also did some internet research. There was one youtube clip from The Seasonal Homestead that especially helped us to get inspired. Seems like the biggest challenge was to make it light weight enough, so it would be easy to move around. But also, it should be sufficiently big, strong and durable. We kept all that in mind while developing our design. The main structure is made from light pine wood, because we have it available on the farm for free. You could also use bamboo or other light and strong material. We are planing on having up to 10 hens and one rooster inside, so we made the coop 2m x 3,5m. We started with 3 wooden triangles, that defined the dimensions of height and width.
We proceeded with the design of the chicken house. We build it slightly elevated from the ground, which has a couple of good functions. The chickens will have an extra roofed space in case of rain and a nice shade during the summer. Also we gain extra grass surface under the house for grazing, plus they love to sleep above the ground. We placed a few boxes for nesting on the back of the house, where it’s easy for us to access. There are also some sticks running parallel across the house, which makes kind of a mezzanine inside – a perfect spot for sleeping for birds.
The triangle shape makes it easy to attach chicken wire on all sides. On the front triangle we built a door, so we can easily enter the coop, if we have to. If we only want to take the eggs out, we can simply open a little flap on the back of the house. We also made a ladder for the chickens to climb up to the house. The ladder has a string attached, which runs all the way to the back of the coop. This way, we can close the chicken house for the night without entering the coop. We usually don’t do so. However if we have the chicken tractor on remote or uneven parts of the land, this can be a great extra feature to make sure there are no fox accidents. Now we can always decide to close the house for the night, or leave it open, if the coop sits safely on level ground. We also attached 2 wheels on the back of the coop, so one person can lift it and “drive” it somewhere else.
With every project we are trying to use materials, that we find around us, preferably natural or recycled. All the house was constructed with leftover pieces from past projects and pine wood from our own forest. When we had to decide what to use as a roof, we got inspired from a traditional African technique. We wanted to experiment with local “brooms” and use them as in a straw roofed hut. Remembering to keep the whole structure light, but also wanting it to be waterproof, we decided to use up-cycled black plastic underneath. Eventually the brooms act as a shade for the plastic, which is very important in Portugal where we have strong UV light. The broom cover helps also to avoid that the chicken house gets too hot in summer. We also left a ventilation gap on the top of the roof, to allow hot air to escape on a summer day. To keep the rain out, we capped the gap with an up-cycled metal sheet.
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