Take a walk out to your chicken coop. Get ready to take some notes.
What do you see? What do you hear?
And probably most importantly, what do you smell?If it’s anything less than the beautiful aroma of fresh afternoon air, your chickens are probably overdue for a move.
Most people keep their chickens in a classic coop, perhaps with a run, or may even allow them to free-range. However, the chicken coop is outdated and needs to be replaced.
So how can you house your chickens in a sustainable – yet pragmatic and affordable – manner?
By building a chicken tractor.
What is a chicken tractor, you might ask? It’s simply a mobile chicken coop with either an attached or built-in run. These facilities are used to pasture birds that are being raised for meat or eggs, allowing the birds to have ample access to all the grass and bugs and other delicious items they want to eat.
What makes them different from a chicken coop is that they are designed to be moved on a daily basis. Some chicken tractors have wheels, while others require a two-person lift method while the chickens are still sleeping.
Here are some reasons as to why a chicken tractor is a feature that every small farm or homestead should have.
1. They are cleaner
Chickens are messy. They’ll poop everywhere – including in their own food and water supply! Keeping chickens confined to the same area, day after day, can lead to a buildup of manure that leads to awful smells, pests, insect problems, and disease.
Chicken coops need regular deep cleaning, but not chicken tractors. Since you move them every day (or at least at regular intervals), you never have to worry about the manure becoming too much for you to manage.
Moving your chickens every day also helps keep them clean and healthy, too. When you leave your chickens to forage on the same ground, day after day, they are at increased risk of developing worms or parasites. Moving the birds provides them with fresh grass so they aren’t always foraging in their own poop.
When you have a chicken tractor, the manure only goes where you need it. You can put a chicken tractor in an area of the lawn, pasture, or garden that you need fertilized, and the chickens will drop the manure exactly where it is needed. No shoveling or coop cleaning required.
2. They reduce your feeding expenses
Feeding chickens definitely isn’t cheap, especially if you are feeding only organic feed. Moving your chickens out to pasture not only improves the quality and nutritional value of your meat and eggs, but it also dramatically drops your feeding costs.
Chickens will have the opportunity to find their own food all day as they forage on pasture and bugs – and since they’ll get new room to forage every day, you’ll find that you spend significantly less money on grain.
3. They keep your landscaping safe
If you’re like most people, you probably pride yourself on the condition of your lawn. You might have ornamental flowers, shrubs, or trees that you are trying to maintain.
If you have chickens, this can become somewhat difficult. Chickens are indiscriminate foragers, and will go after anything they can find. True story – I once came home to find half the bottom layer of insulation of our house missing. The chickens pecked it all off out of boredom!
Therefore, free ranging your birds isn’t always the best option if you want to maintain a gorgeous looking lawn – or even any lawn at all!
If you have your chickens confined to a chicken tractor, they still have access to fresh grass and sunshine, but they won’t munch on your expensive plants (or your house, in our case!).
Chicken tractors also help give your grass time to regrow. Overgrazing results from pasture not being given enough time to regenerate between grazing cycles.
This can cause erosion and soil depletion. If you give your grass time to rest – by moving your tractor every day – you will be rewarded with a much healthier lawn or pasture.
4. They are less expensive than traditional chicken coops
Chicken tractors are much less expensive to build than traditional, immobile chicken coops. If you’re on a budget, you can find thousands of wallet-0friendly chicken tractor plans online.
Plus, since you move this kind of housing every day, you don’t have to worry about building coops with expensive insulation, permanent feeders, or lots of bedding (which may seem cheap, but can really add up over time).
They are also more versatile, allowing you to use them in your yard, garden, and pasture in a single season. These facilities are small and easy to move, so you can place them wherever they need to be.
In the summer, if it’s a particularly hot day, you can put them under a tree to give them natural shade. Or, if it’s cold and windy, you can put them on the Southside of the barn to shelter them from the wind.
Your options are limitless.
5. They allow you to maintain your garden
Chicken tractors allow your chickens to forage without causing you to worry about whether they are destroying certain crops.
A free range chicken will get into just about anything, but if you want your chickens to forage in certain areas of your garden, you can allow them to do that, too – but in a more controlled way.
Chickens naturally scratch in the ground for bugs and other food, so if you move your chicken tractor to a certain area of the garden, you can use them to help aerate compost or till up the soil.
They can remove unwanted pests around plants that they won’t eat, like potatoes, and they can even help keep your garden fertilized. While they can do this while free-ranging, housing them in a tractor ensures that they won’t get themselves into trouble.
6. They are easy to maintain
If you have a traditional coop, it might be too large for you to keep track of the daily wear and tear that your chickens will inflict upon it.
With a chicken tractor, you will notice small dings and dents more quickly, and since this kind of housing is smaller and easier to move, you’ll also be able to fix it with less hassle.
Plus, since you won’t need bedding, you’ll have less cleaning to do. Even if you house your chickens in a tractor over the winter months and utilize the deep litter method of bedding, you’ll have fewer overall chores on your hand.
7. They help fight boredom
A bored chicken is an unhappy chicken, and an unhappy chicken is a destructive chicken. A chicken who has too much time on its hands (talons?) will quickly begin to engage in negative behaviors like feather pecking and cannibalism.
If chickens are confined to a small space all day, they will begin to fight. Once they have fresh scenery and are allowed to move around on fresh grass all day, they will have plenty to do and won’t need to bully each other to fill their time.
8. They help provide your chickens with a more natural, well-rounded diet
When your chickens are housed in a chicken tractor, they will have the time and space to forage for bugs and grubs that overwinter in the soil.
Every day, or whenever you move your chicken tractor, if less often than that, your chickens will have access to a new, fresh source of nutrients.
This will mimic the diet of the original chicken, helping them to be healthier and more well-fed overall. You’ll likely find that your dependency on vitamin-packed feeds or supplements are drastically reduced.
Plus, you’ll be rewarded with eggs that are much tastier and more nutritious than traditional fresh eggs!
Chicken tractors also give your chickens direct access to the soil. This may not sound important, but what you need to remember is that chickens, by nature, need to scratch in the soil.
They do this to find weed seeds, grass, bugs, and even small rocks. These rocks help chickens digest what they eat. Ever heard of feeding your chickens grit? This is why.
9. They protect your birds from predators
This was our biggest reason for building a chicken tractor. We were struggling to keep our flock afloat after multiple predator attacks, including those from hawks, raccoons, foxes, and even weasels.
Our chicken tractor is fully enclosed on the tops and sides, with chicken wire surrounding the birds from all angles. Although they have a covered area to duck under when it rains or gets cold, they also have access to consistent fresh air and sunlight.
However, they are completely covered and predators are unable to get into the tractor, despite how hard they try.
We actually found fox tracks and small droplets of blood around the bottom of our chicken tractor where an ambitious animal once tried to dig under – yet it was unable to get inside.
Chicken tractors offer a method of securely housing your chickens without having to worry about the threat of predators.
If you have particularly clever or tenacious predators stalking your chickens, you can even line the base of your tractor with rocks, boards, or wire to help further reduce this risk.
You won’t have to worry about rats getting into your chicken tractor, either. Because the tractor moves so often, rats won’t have enough time to figure out what’s going on.
10. They tie in to several important permaculture principles
When you think about permaculture, you need to think about how you and your livestock can interact more naturally with the environment.
Chicken tractors allow your birds to interact directly with the environment, harnessing the energy of the sun, grass, soil, and bugs and returning that energy back to the environment in the form of eggs and manure (nutrients).
They operate on a continuous loop, producing minimal waste and allowing you, as the facilitator of the tractor, to respond to changes and adjust accordingly – think of how you change the location for your tricot every day to meet the demands of the environment (soil quality) and your chickens (weather patterns and feeding requirements).
If you are ready to slow down and respect the importance of the environment on your farm’s daily functioning, a chicken tractor is a definite must-have item. It will allow you to return to a sense of balance as you raise your chickens, and will save you time, money, and stress in the meantime.
Anywhere you look online, you are likely to find building plans for a whole host of chicken tractor designs. You can build a chicken tractor out of just about nay old material, and with the engineering you need to suit your lifestyle.
On our farm, we have two chicken tractors – one designed for our egg production flock, and the other for our broiler birds. The egg tractor has built-in nest boxes and is slightly larger than the broiler tractor (since that one needs to house more birds).
Nevertheless, these tractors have been a lifesaver on our farm, helping to keep our fields fertilized and our chickens safe from predators – all the while raising birds in a permaculture-friendly, environmentally safe fashion that promotes their health and wellbeing.
Oh, and we get some pretty delicious eggs and meat out of the deal, too.
So what are you waiting for? Start building a chicken tractor this spring, and you’ll be rewarded with a happier, more robust flock in just a short amount of time.