Sunday, January 30, 2011

Chicken Tractors: The first design

We grow much of our food and use organic and sustainable methods as much as possible with my schedule.  It's important to develop and maintain the soil nutrients and replenish those nutrients with organic material.  We have a grouping of pallet compost bins and we use compost tea on a regular basis. 

We added a small flock of chickens 3 years ago to use them in portable tractors to add to the soil nutrients and act as rototillers.  I've documented the process for others here and in subsequent posts.

I started in this effort by evaluating the existing designs and settled on a system that was self-contained and manually movable by one or two persons, depending on the circumstances. For the daily routine it needed to be movable by myself, and when moving it to another location it had to be manageable by two, simply. The initial design I chose will be recognizable in my version if you've done the research or read the book:  'Chicken Coops'.  My design is much more robust and a little too unwieldy, but I'll show it for comparison to other designs and my subsequent modifications.  
This is a great tractor for a small fixed coop that can be protected from high winds by shelter or cement block weights.

Chicken tractor:  First design completed

Chicken tractor:  The pullets first day in the new tractor

I have a construction background, so I've used materials and methods familiar to me. I debated the base lumber and keeping in mind the toxicity of pressure treated lumber, I used conventional framing lumber for the entire structure. I'm surprised and relieved that the base 2 x 4's are still in great shape as they approach the third year of service.

The length is 10' overall, with the enclosing framework inset 6" to allow for handles and the all important addition of cement blocks in windy conditions.

Chicken tractor:  Currently beginning the fall course through the spent garden beds

 The overall width is less than the width of the conventional metal roof panels I use, so about 36" - 1 " or 35".  As you can see this tractor is tall, actually over 6'.  It has lots of open space, but is a handful to move, and it's still in use.

Chicken tractor:  Winter progress

Chicken tractor:  Snowed in

The cement blocks are always nearby or on the tractor, as we experience high winds on a regular basis here.  The snow build-up adds some additional weight, both on the tractor and my disposition as the winter wears on...

In the warm months we use bed sheets from the thrift store as sun shades.  They become additional sail surface on windy days, so they need to be taken down accordingly.  We use wooden clothes pins to secure the sheets.  Fitted, no less, on occasion!

Chicken tractor with spinnaker sail

Chicken tractors in the pasture and chestnut grove

The construction uses 2 x 4's fastened with exterior deck screws via a professional grade B&D screw gun.  The roost box sides incorporate rough-sawn hardwood boards I scavenged from a sawmill scrap pile. 

Chicken tractor:  Coop doors deployed

The ramp door is 3/4" plywood with some scraps used for steps.  It was a steep climb for the young pullets to initially learn.  I had to manually put them in the roost box nightly for about the first week until they got the hang of it.  I raised this group from chicks, so the transition from cardboard box to chicken tractor took some training.  The large size of this tractor allowed me to crawl in and work with the pullets, and my new designs will need some adaptation to allow this access in future generations.

The feeder is hung under the roost box, and was replaced with a steel one later on.  This doesn't work well for the obvious reason that the roost is above it, which I've eliminated in the later models.  I use standard stainless steel dog water bowls which are in the roost.

I use large washers and screws to secure the fencing over the frame.  A simple piece of chord strung to the top inside wall and out the side manages the ramp.  Fastening is varied.  I used a combination of odd hardware to secure this one.

Chicken tractor run view.  The feeder location proved to be wrong, as the chickens scratch the bedding above into the feeder.  The four-foot elevation of the coop floor is too high, letting weather affect the feeder contents, as well

My daily routine involves fresh feed and water early in the morning.  I usually move each tractor one width each day, weather permitting and depending on the work the chickens have done on the ground and foliage.  I'm mindful to keep the tractors out of the active growing areas and finish them out of future planting beds months in advance.  The chickens are thorough and over the 3 years everything from beds to trees to grasses have benefited from this ongoing cycle.  In warmer seasons, water needs to be replenished 1-2 times a day.  We collect eggs in the morning and check several more times as we're supplementing food and water.

The roost is simple, made from scraps and the roost base has 1/4" hardware cloth, allowing everything to fall through in warmer months.  I keep lots of bedding for insulation in colder months.

Chicken tractor assembly:  I like this roost design, but added one additional lateral in later designs

We are fortunate to have an OEFFA-certified, (our Ohio-based organic certifier), feed provider several miles down on our road.  The next closest option is an hour and a half away with organic certified feed from Wisconsin.  I supplement the chickens diet with dandelion greens in the spring, food scraps from the house, and produce from the garden when available, as often as possible. Kale has been a favorite, along with tomatoes.

The tractors have 3-4 chickens each.  I mostly have the Delaware breed, which are large birds, and added a pair of Barred Rocks last year as a favor to my daughter.

This system is crucial, IMHO, for maintaining an organic system of large gardens.

Now the bad news. I consider this design a failure for the use I built it for and you'll see the refinements in the following 3 systems I built after this one. Here are the reasons:

It's too heavy overall to move long distances.  It's better suited for a tractor that can stay in a small area.  It's portable for me, but it's at the limit of my strength to lift and move, and gets heavier as the years have gone by. 

It's too tall and top heavy. When moving it beyond the daily moves you have to be very careful that it doesn't tip over. Fortunately, when it does, it's very durable, speaking from experience.

It doesn't lend itself well to stock wire fence/mesh products available.  I've modified my design to accommodate stock fence sizes, to avoid cutting or splicing.

It is essentially a giant sail and it takes 2-3 people to right it after it blows over. Assume 25 mph winds and over you need to add the cement blocks. Over 35 mph you'll need to make sure the rear side is pointed into the wind.

Chicken wire is not an option with roaming dogs in the area. They shred it easily and your chickens are trapped. Sometimes it ends comically, mostly it doesn't. The repair solution was a 3” x 3” mesh that came in 4' rolls.  The first intrusion, the dog was young and ended up in the roost, without any harm to the birds.  The second time two birds were torn up, but are healing.

This would be a practical stationary coop for birds, including possibly turkeys. I plan on taking it out of the tractor group on the next generation.

The next three tractors are an ongoing design that continues to need refinement, but works as I had wanted. They are easy to build. They are designed to minimize the need to modify off the shelf components. They are relatively stable in high winds. I've had one flip in 45+ mph winds and I now use the cement blocks whenever the threat is for 20+ winds to be sure.

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