Working with Chicken Tractors

In the previous post, Working with Young Chickens, the chickens were just starting to get big enough to put outside. We were hardening them off so that they’d survive the elements. The chickens are most definitely large enough now to go outside (and have been for about two weeks). Each chicken has about 2 square feet of space in a chicken tractor. However, the chicken only lives in that space for a few days. During the time the chickens are living in the chicken tractors, they’ll actually use a 24-foot × 80-foot area (or about 25.6-feet per chicken).

Of course, the question is, “What is a chicken tractor?” Our version of the chicken tractor is a square bottomless cage with a roof that allows the chickens to access bugs, grass, dirt, and other items that a chicken would normally want to access, but in a safe environment. Here’s one of our older chicken tractors.

ChickenTractor01

This particular chicken tractor is 4-feet wide and 8-feet long. It has handles at either end for moving it from place-to-place. Chicken tractors come a wide variety of forms, but the idea in all cases is to provide a movable cage that lacks a bottom. When the birds are young, we move our chicken tractors once a week. As they get older, we move them progressively more often until we’re moving them every three days before we process the last of them.

We build our chicken tractors from standard pine or fir boards and 24-inch high ¼-inch hardware cloth. Each chicken tractor requires about 40-feet of hardware cloth (24-feet for the sides and 16-feet across the top), so a single roll will build two chicken tractors that can house a total of 32 full grown birds comfortably. (Initially, you can put up to 64 birds in the two chicken tractors if you plan to cull the smaller ones for use in canned chicken, which requires three to four pound chickens, but larger birds require a minimum of 2 square feet each to be comfortable and to grow well.)

You shouldn’t use pressure treated lumber for your chicken tractor because the chickens peck at the wood. Anything the chickens eat, you also eat. That’s the same reason you don’t want to paint the lumber unless you want to invest in non-toxic paint. The only exception that you can reasonably make is to use ½-inch CDX plywood for the roofs because the chickens don’t get anywhere near them. Unfortunately, the use of non-treated wood means that we have to perform repairs on the chicken tractors each spring, but so far, the repairs have been minimal.

It looks like each chicken tractor will last six to eight years (perhaps longer as I gain experience). At that point, you need to build an entirely new wooden frame because the old one will rot enough to require replacement, but the hardware cloth, handles, and hinges are still perfectly good, so you can recycle them. In fact, it’s possible that you can even reuse some of the staples used to hold the hardware cloth in place. The cost to build a chicken tractor is about $240.00 with the hardware cloth, so you need to factor $30.00 to $40.00 into your costs each year to account for wear and tear on them.

As with any building enterprise, I made mistakes with the first few chicken tractors. For one thing, I tried using chicken wire the first time. The racoons demonstrated that they can easily overcome chicken wire and had a good chicken dinner as a result. Another thought I had was to build the chicken tractors with hinged joints so I could take them down each winter for storage. The solution proved problematic and the rotting was actually worse than if I had left the cages up all winter. I also made the door on the top of the cage too large the first time and the chickens demonstrated an unswerving ability to get out of the chicken tractor while I was trying to feed themleading to Keystone Cop episodes of chicken catching. I’m sure I’ll continue to learn new tricks as I build new chicken tractors.

The chickens require boards to roost on inside the chicken tractor. Otherwise, they’ll get diseased easily and their breast feathers will become almost useless to them. Chickens also need exercise and a place to get their feet off the ground from time-to-time. Our chicken tractors have 2×4 roost like the ones shown here:

ChickenTractor02

We supply two roosts to divide the cage into thirds. The left side contains their water dish and the right contains the food dish. The center is completely free of any encumbrance so the chickens have a free space in which to roam. The roosts are 2-inches above the ground so that they aren’t too high to reach, yet provide complete protection from the ground, even when it rains.

A lot of people use specialized feeders for their chickens. It’s actually better to use a short pan so that the chickens have good access to food and water. The water pan also serves as a bath, so we change the water at least twice a day (more often after a storm because the birds want to get any mud off). Here are the pans that we use:

ChickenTractor03

As you can see, it’s nothing fancy. A pan like this will last around five years. It holds 3 gallons of water, which is more than enough for the chickens in the chicken tractor. If you have any questions about these chicken tractors, let me know at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Garden Structures

Rebecca and I have managed to get the garden planted for the year. The contents of the garden vary each year to accommodate our personal tastes and also to ensure the larder remains full of good things to eat. This year the small garden (20′ × 20′) contains tomatoes, okra, and egg plants. Our tomato crop is a bit smaller this year at only twelve plants in the main garden (we also have two plants in the salad garden).

Like many people, we use cages to hold our tomatoes. However, the somewhat strong winds in our area have a habit of knocking the tomato cages over and damaging the vines long before they’re through for the season. To prevent this from happening, I came up with a technique for enhancing the survivability of the cage setup using electric fence posts. Electric fence posts come in a number of formswe prefer the 48″ metal variety that comes with a triangle of metal at the bottom. You push them into the ground with your foot and they hold relatively well for smaller loads. Each tomato cage requires one fence post as shown here:

TomatoStakes01

Place the posts so that they’ll oppose movement by the wind, so that little triangle at the bottom has the best chance of holding when the wind is high. The next step is to get the tomato cages in place. Put the upper ring (or third ring on a four-ring tomato cage) on the outside of the post and the second ring on the inside of the post so that the post is threaded through the tomato cage. Use cable ties to secure both rings to the post as shown here:

TomatoStakes02

You can clip off the excess cable tie using a side cutter pliers. The combination of tomato cage and electric fence post normally keeps everything in place, even in high winds. The completed setup looks like this:

TomatoStakes03

The main garden (60′ × 80′) contains a wealth of vegetables and fruit this year. Of course, you saw some of the permanent bed items in the Early Spring – The Garden and Orchard post. In addition to those items, the main garden now contains potatoes, summer squash, winter squash, snap peas, standard peas, lima beans, green beans, broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, carrots, sweet peppers, sweetcorn, asparagus, and comphrey. Later in the season we’ll probably plant beets and perhaps a few other short growth time items.

We get bush varieties of vegetables when we can because they require significantly less setup than the vine varieties. However, peas are one of the vegetables for which there aren’t any suitable bush varieties, so we need to erect a fence for them to grow on. The one mistake I made in getting fencing material is that our fence is only 30″ highthe peas really need something taller (upwards of 5′). However, we just let the vines grow over the top and things work out acceptably.

The fence has to be movable from year-to-year to allow for rotation. In addition, we don’t grow peas every year, so sometimes the little fence is used for something else (such as cucumbers) and sometimes not at all. In order to grow the quantities we need, the fence is 50′ long.

The weight of the produce demands that we use something a little more sturdy that electric fence posts to hold the fence up at the ends, so this project requires T-posts, which are considerably heavier than electric fence posts (and more expensive too). In addition, you need a T-post driver/puller to work with this type of post. If you have good chest strength, you can get by with a much less expensive T-post driver and pull the posts out by wiggling and then pulling them out at the end of the year.

We used chicken wire as fencing material. It’s inexpensive, lasts an incredibly long time if you take it down each year (ours is 12 years old now and no sign of rust at all), and the small openings are perfect for peas and cucumbers to grow on. You begin by driving a T-post into the ground and then attaching one end of the fence to it using cable ties as shown here.

PeaPost01

Make sure you use enough cable ties and that the cable ties are of the heavier variety available in garden stores. Use the fencing to help define the location of the second T-post. Drive the T-post into the ground, pull the fencing as taut as possible (using one or two helpers), and temporarily attach it to the T-post.

At this point, you can add electric fence posts every four or five feet. Begin at one end and work toward the other end. Always pull the fence taut, using a helper to make it possible to attach the fence using cable ties. Use four cable ties minimum and make sure you use a double cable tie at the top (one cable tie slightly lower than the other) to keep the fence from sagging too much as the peas or cucumbers grow as shown here:

PeaPost02

Eventually, you’ll get to the other end of the row. At this point, you can reattach the fencing the T-post, if needed, to remove any slack. Your fencing won’t be completely straight, but it’ll look nice and provide good structure for the peas. Here’s my completed fence:

PeaPost03

Of course, the garden is far from complete. We’re weeding between the rows now and will then add mulch. More on these tasks in another blog post. In the meantime, let me know if you have any questions at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.