What are “chicken tractors?”
The term conjures an image of a chicken driving around on a miniature tractor, but it really just refers to a movable coop for broiler chickens (chickens raised for meat production). A movable coop for layers is typically called an “eggmobile.”
Although first coined by authors Andy Lee and Patricia Foreman in their book Chicken Tractor: The Permaculture Guide to Happy Hens and Healthy Soil,1 I initially learned of the term “chicken tractor” from Joel Salatin in his book You Can Farm: The Entrepreneur’s Guide to Start & Succeed in a Farming Enterprise.2 For a deeper dive into meat birds and how to raise them in chicken tractors, Joel’s book Pastured Poultry Profit$ goes into greater detail, including providing plans for chicken tractors.3
You Can Farm was my personal bridge from thinking about farming to actually doing some form of farming. It started with a backyard garden, the garden led to honey bees. . . and then to chickens. Once you get chickens, you’re really into it!
Joel Salatin encourages readers to start with whatever they can do today, however small. You Can Farm provides many examples of projects that can be incorporated into one’s farming endeavors, and helps would-be farmers assess which projects are more suitable as a “centerpiece” operation as opposed to a supporting project. For example, raw milk artisan cheese is our centerpiece operation here at P.A. Bowen Farmstead, but we also produce pasture-based eggs, chicken, beef and woodlands pork.
Chicken Tractors Trial and Error
At P.A. Bowen Farmstead, we built our first fleet of chicken tractors using Joel’s design (originally designed by his brother for rabbits). Essentially, it is a short box with an open floor, covered in chicken wire and solid tin panels on at least two sides and most of the top, with a hatch door on top for entrance and removal. The water buckets sit on top with a hose to gravity-fill a waterer inside; feed troughs are placed inside on the ground and removed while moving the pen.
These worked fine for the first few years, but we learned a few things about how we could improve our construction. First, chicken tractors need to be built strong enough to deter predators. They must also withstand rigorous weather conditions, and stand up to being moved twice daily across rough fields—while being light enough to pull easily. We also found that we liked easier access to the chickens.
These insights led to our first round of improvements. First, we added one-half-inch hardware cloth over the chicken wire all along the sides. Chicken wire on its own is not strong enough to stand up to a persistent fox or dog, and its holes are big enough to allow a raccoon, opossum or cat to reach through and grab your birds.
Second, we added wheels to help ease moving the pens over the rough terrain. There is a chicken tractor dolly available that slips under one end and helps ease pulling from the front, but we wanted to see if we could build this capability into the tractor itself. However, the pens need to be flush with the ground (so the birds don’t get out and predators don’t get in). We tinkered with fixed wheels, wheels on retractable pivots, different sizes of wheels, different placements on the pen, and so on. We run six tractors of birds on the fields from late spring to early- to mid-fall, so we had a few to play with!
As a third improvement, we reinforced the frame with larger lumber because it was starting to pull apart halfway through the season. We also found that screws hold the wood together better than nails.
The problem we ran into was that all of our improvements added weight to the tractor, making it more difficult to pull, so the next step was to look for other ways to lighten the tractor, such as replacing the metal panels with corrugated plastic. Used yard signs such as old campaign signs from local elections are an excellent free resource that serves this purpose. Some people use aluminum tubing or small-diameter PVC pipe for the tractor frame, which makes a lighter and easier-to-pull tractor. However, chicken tractors can’t be too light, or the wind will lift them up and tip them over.
Time for a Chicken Tractor Design Overhaul
Eventually, the inspiration and real impetus for a complete design overhaul came to me while collecting meat chickens for harvesting. In a Salatin-style tractor, the top hatch means someone has to climb into the pen, crawl through the “schmear” and hand the chickens out the hatch to someone else. This is a messy job. I wanted a chicken tractor that had a real door that we could walk through to feed, water and tend to the birds without being on our hands and knees.
After I spent some time researching coop designs online and perusing the plethora of books on do-it-yourself (DIY) chicken coop designs that have popped up over the last few years, I selected the options I wanted that could be combined into our new tractor design.
The biggest change was in the overall shape. Our current design, which we have used satisfactorily for the last several years, is a “hoop house” structure using cattle panels bent over a wooden frame and a door in front to allow easy access. No more crawling—and a structure that makes it much easier to feed, water and collect chickens.
This design also has better air circulation. A simple tarp bungeed across the top and sides can be configured as needed and provides flexible control for protecting against the elements. The tractor is lighter and easier to pull, and one person can collect the birds on processing day.
Chicken Tractors Design Details
Our chicken tractor is basically a ten-foot-square frame of two-by-fours, with the left and right boards placed vertically (two-inch sides facing up) and the bottom corners cut to resemble a sled; the front and back boards are attached horizontally (four-inch sides facing up) and flush with the top of the side boards, to allow for clearance while pulling.
Each corner has a small triangle of one-inch board to strengthen the frame. Then, I use two cattle panels attached to the side frame boards, bent over to create the arch and secured with twisted wire (zip-ties are great to attach initially but will break after they become weathered).
A third cattle panel is cut to cover the whole back and front sides. I use two-by-twos to frame the doorway and to build the door.
We cover the entire structure with good-quality, galvanized chicken wire (holes no larger than three-quarter-inch) and then run half-inch hardware cloth around the entire bottom, going two to three feet up the sides.
There is also a two-by-two across the top on the inside to provide more stability. If it is built strongly enough, you can hang feed and water on this, but it is also important to be mindful of not “overbuilding”—you want it to be light enough to pull easily.
We fashioned a pull by attaching a cable or rope to each front corner, run through a section of garden hose for a handle, which makes it easier on the hands.
This tractor has no wheels—just sled action. Though you can certainly add wheels, we have not had much success with keeping the wheels on, and these pens are light enough to pull without wheels. This decision depends somewhat on your terrain.
To cover the top, as mentioned, we use a tarp with bungees; the tarp can then be adjusted as needed for wind, rain and sun.
Enter The Chickens
How many chickens in a tractor is best? Layers should have at least four square feet of coop space per bird, not including run space (approximately ten to fifteen square feet per bird). However, because meat birds have a shorter existence, most recommendations for meat bird space are one to two square feet per bird, so theoretically a ten-by-ten-foot pen could house up to one hundred birds.
In practice, we find that our ten-by-ten-foot frame will house approximately eighty meat birds comfortably until they get to be about five pounds in size. We keep them in brooders in the barn for the first two to three weeks (depending on weather); then they go out onto the fields in the tractors for the last five to six weeks of grow-out. Fewer birds is probably better if you’re going to raise them larger than that, or you could try a twelve-by-twelve base. We have found that the sweet spot in terms of our customers’ preference is a meat bird of about four and a half pounds.
Use observation to make adjustments to the number of birds. If they are too crowded, thin them out.
Remember, in our system, the birds are moved to a new ten-by-ten-foot area of fresh grass twice a day, which means they get fresh “space” twice a day. Conventional confinement birds, in contrast, get the same one to two feet of space all day, every day. Ironically, we cannot be Animal Welfare-certified, while a confinement system that has the same two-square foot space per bird—a bird that never even has to be outside—can be certified.
Observe And Customize
There are a handful of hard-and-fast rules for raising meat birds, but fundamentally, observation is your biggest and best tool for making decisions on how, when and why to make adjustments.
A chicken tractor is fairly inexpensive to build, especially if you are resourceful in finding recycled materials. Chicken tractors can be scaled down for a half dozen backyard chickens, or scaled up for a small commercial operation. I recommend you build one and let that process determine any changes you want to make in the next one. It’s an iterative process to get the design (and materials) that works best for you.
It can be helpful to get several books on chickens—each will provide a useful perspective. However, while it’s good to have a handful of these resources on hand for information, ultimately, they should only serve as a guide while you customize your own operation. Don’t be afraid to think outside the box and come up with a new way. It just needs to work for you.
What Do Chickens Eat?
At P.A. Bowen Farmstead, we use a poultry feed specifically designed for pasture-raised birds by Jeff Mattocks, author of Feeding Pasture-Raised Poultry (second edition).4 While conventional broilers are bred to thrive on very specific diets, birds on pasture have a different gut ecology that allows them to tolerate more diversity in their diet.
Adult chickens on pasture get a lot of their protein through access to bugs, worms, snakes, mice and anything that crawls or squirms around enough to catch the chickens’ sharp eye. Consequently, the supplemental feed we provide does not have to be as high in protein as the feed for a growing chick in a brooder. We also soak the feed overnight in fresh whey from our cheesemaking, which adds more protein and other nutrients as well as enhancing the flavor.
The three components of the basic feed preparation (which we grind fresh weekly) are as follows:
- One-third organic barley
- One-third organic sorghum seed (replacement for corn)
- One-third organic field peas (replacement for soy)
To this total weight of basic feed, we add:
- 6 percent fish meal
- 4 percent aragonite (calcium source)
- 3 percent Fertrell Poultry NutriBalancer
Similar to lime, aragonite is a calcium carbonate, but the biggest difference is that limestone is rock while aragonite is predigested seashells, which makes the calcium more available to the chicken.
This mixture is soaked overnight in whey before feeding. The acidity of the whey helps neutralize phytic acid and releases more nutrients from the grain. (If you do not have access to fresh whey, use a little organic apple cider vinegar mixed with water.)
For more information about the nutrient needs of pasture-based poultry and how to select the best feed options for your birds, Jeff has a more recent book (released in 2020) Pastured Poultry: Feeding and Management (fourth edition).5
- Lee AW, Foreman PL. Chicken Tractor: The Permaculture Guide to Happy Hens and Healthy Soil. Good Earth Publications; 1998.
- Salatin J. You Can Farm: The Entrepreneur’s Guide to Start & Succeed in a Farming Enterprise. Polyface; 1998.
- Salatin J. Pastured Poultry Profit$. Polyface; 1996.
- Mattocks J. Feeding Pasture-Raised Poultry (second edition). The Fertrell Company; 2013.
- Mattocks J. Pastured Poultry: Feeding and Management (fourth edition). The Fertrell Company; 2020.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly journal of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Spring 2022🖨️ Print post