The concept of a “chicken tractor” is simple: it’s just a portable chicken pen (Google will teach you all you want to know). The idea is to combine the benefits of confinement raising (safety, shelter, heat, etc.) and pastured raising (natural food, exercise, cleanliness). During the summer, our chickens range freely throughout the goat paddock, but for this winter we wanted a warmer and more secure location for them. We also wanted them near the house, with access to power. These are laying hens, after all, and they lay better with more light than winter gives naturally, and in extra cold nights some heat is a good thing.
So here’s our take on the concept. It houses four hens and two roosters, with roughly equal indoor and outdoor spaces. Inside are a laying box, roosts, food, and water. Outside is enough room to exercise, peck, and fulfill other chickenly needs. It’s close to the house, and power is run to a heat lamp through a heavy-duty extension cord run through a simple household security timer to turn the lights on and off as needed to extend their apparent daylight (their laying went up significantly after they moved in here).
Fundamental to the concept is portability. This shelter is heavy enough to keep coons or dogs from tipping it over (we hope), but light enough to drag around with two people or a tractor. About once a week we move it to new ground. This keeps things cleaner, as the waste isn’t building up in one place all winter, and as a side effect ends up spreading excellent fertilizer all over the chosen area (in this case, future berry plantations). By the end of the winter we expect to have covered much of the available area, resulting in easy fertilization without lots of work. And the birds are far happier not living in their own waste all winter. It’s easier to move this once a week than shovel lots of chicken crap.
During the day, if I’m around, I’ll often open the outside door and let them range in a larger area, defined by an electric net fence that can be dimly seen in the photograph. This really gives them a healthy life, and they know where home is (food, water, and heat) and don’t get too far away.
It’s a very basic and effective concept; a nice blend of modern innovation with traditional methods. This type of thing has been used at many scales; once you’re moving a portable coop regularly anyway, why not make it large enough for lots of birds? The effect is the same. Many folks use large (90-100 bird) sheds to improve their pastures, moving the shed every few days and effectively spreading excellent manure with none of the waste or pollution of doing it artifically. And the birds are happier too.
Someday down the road we’ll likely expand our poultry operation to larger numbers and tractors; geese and ducks are possibilities too. In the meantime, this little homestead-sized weekend project gives us fresh eggs, healthy chickens, and better growing areas with very little downside.