Get the Facts on Chicken Tractors

a chicken tractor made out of old siding and gates with wheels

Treehugger / Lindsey Reynolds

Chicken tractors are movable chicken coops that can benefit both backyard breeders and small-time farmers. Sometimes on wheels and usually with a rope or some sort of pulley attached, chicken tractors lack a floor and allow chickens to graze in different areas of a pasture as the structure is moved. As chickens scratch and peck at the ground, they can naturally prepare and maintain garden areas, spreading manure and tilling future planting zones.

Turkeys, pigs, goats, geese, and ducks are also sometimes managed in animal tractor systems, becoming an integral part of the agricultural environment. Chicken tractors can also be used to clean up weedy areas in home gardens, and a small movable coop with two or three chickens can be moved each day to effectively mow a small lawn.

Chicken Tractor 101

Chicken tractors are typically moved every day or two, allowing the birds to graze on new vegetation. Chickens also eat various slugs, bugs, and snails that could harm a garden. Once the tractor is moved, manure left behind acts as a fertilizer. Some farmers use chicken tractors as part of a sustainable, value-added farm management system, in which chickens graze on grains like alfalfa and are then sold directly to local consumers. In this system, up to 100 broilers can occupy a 100-square-foot chicken tractor. Hens need more space, with a maximum of around 30 birds in the same square footage when the chickens are laying eggs.

Almost all chicken tractors have an enclosed nesting area and a run for the chickens to move about, both enclosed within protective mesh wire and firmly connected to some sort of frame. Heavier frames are often on wheels, but that might not be necessary for tractors constructed with light wire mesh and tarp. Larger chicken tractors are sometimes pulled with trucks, but homesteaders more typically move them by hand, dragging the structure around a backyard or garden as needed.

Chicken coop & bantam
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Chicken Tractors Versus Chicken Coops

Chicken tractors are a great option for many farmers and homesteaders, but other people may opt for a traditional chicken coop for a variety of reasons. A stable chicken coop can provide a safer environment in areas where there are many predators, for example. While chicken tractors can protect from hawks and other birds of prey, animals like raccoons or coyotes may be able to dig under the structure and reach the chickens, as there isn't a floor to the chicken tractor. Coops can be built with cinder blocks underground surrounding the structure to prevent animals from digging inside.

For urban farmers, chicken tractors may not be feasible due to space constraints. Small yards might make it impossible to move the structure. For those that opt for chicken coops, they do require regular cleaning. Used litter, debris and manure, must be removed and the entire structure routinely disinfected. With chicken tractors, the nesting area should still be cleaned, but manure on the ground intentionally becomes integrated into the nearby environment. Regardless of whether a traditional coop or chicken tractor is used, it's important to thoroughly wash hands with soap and water after leaving the poultry area. 

mobile chicken home
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DIY or Buy?

With a little ingenuity, most of the tools to build a chicken tractor can often be found cheaply. In the past, homesteaders have used everything from recycled pallets to old cars. Almost all chicken tractors have a frame that's either rectangular or A-line, with mesh wire wrapped around. For extra protection, some people double layer the wiring to keep out predators, and may even install electric fencing around the chicken tractor for further protection and to allow the animals additional space to graze. For people who cannot find extant materials to build with, two-by-fours can be purchased to create the frame instead. When compared to buying pre-made chicken tractors, these methods almost always save money, but understandably require some skill to build.

There are also many different chicken tractor designs online, and smaller independent retailers also offer hand-built coops. Whether you purchase your tractor or make your own, it will need a nesting area that's fully secure, where the birds can lay their eggs and sleep at night. This area should be able to latch closed, and is usually elevated above the ground — as seen in this recent chicken tractor patent application.

Using Your Chicken Tractor

Where to place your chicken tractor depends on the role you'd like your chickens to play in the backyard ecosystem. Lighter animals like chicken and turkey can be rotated on a permanent basis in orchard systems, giving them a healthy mixed diet from the orchard as they fertilize trees. Chicken tractors can also be used from start to finish when preparing a garden site. First, the chicken are confined to an area until it's grazed clean, leaving fertilizer behind. The area is subsequently covered in mulch until the spring, when crops can be transported directly into the soil.

Larger animals can also play a part in this sort of grazing system, with pigs in shelter pens used to root up areas prior to planting gardens. With chickens, the dirt in a plot should be worked some before using the chicken tractor, as their pecking and scratching actions won't be sufficient to till the soil.

How often to move a chicken tractor depends on how many chickens are inside and how large it is. While USDA regulations only mandate that chickens get around one square foot of space each, many homesteaders and urban farmers consider chickens pets and allow them much more room than that. Around a square foot of space in the nesting area and several square feet of space in the run per bird is common. The larger the chicken tractor, the more difficult it is to move. Small farmers may use a truck, which isn't feasible in many backyards, particularly as many chicken tractors need to be moved daily.

When purchasing or designing a chicken tractor, keep in mind that there needs to be easy access for humans. A structure that is rectangular and too large could mean climbing around on your hands and knees in chicken poop. Many people also add watering devices to make sure their birds stay hydrated throughout the day. For chicken tractors without a solid roof, it is also advisable to consider locations that provide some shade for the birds.

View Article Sources
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  4. Painter, Kathleen Marie, et al. (2015). "Break-even Analysis of Small-Scale Production of Pastured Organic Poultry." University of Idaho Extension.