Sunday, November 6, 2016

Building an All-Natural Chicken Tractor

The chicken tractor is an enclosed coop with no floor that can be moved around the yard. Because there is no floor, the chickens are free to explore the ground under the coop, foraging for greens and bugs to compliment their feed. But being enclosed means the hens are free to forage without any risk from predators, including birds of prey.

No floor also means that their droppings fertilize the yard, rather than accumulating in the coop and needing to be shoveled out by hand. Moving the coop allows the chickens to spread their droppings around the yard. It also prevents the chickens from overgrazing in any one area and gives the yard time to recover, a practice called rotational grazing. In essence, the chicken tractor has made it possible for suburban and even urban households to keep a brood of hens on a very small piece of land.

In the autumn of 2016, I was tasked with building a small, portable chicken tractor for a suburban home. And being as I am, I decided to make a natural building challenge out of the task! In order to meet my own high standards, the coop would need to satisfy the following criteria:

  • Built of all-natural materials
  • Lightweight and portable
  • Easy to use
  • Built with the comfort of its inhabitants in mind

I will go into more detail about these aspects of the coop throughout this post.

Built of all-natural materials: Here is a work-in-progress shot of the all-natural chicken tractor. The frame is built of 2x3's to keep it lightweight, with 1x4 planks for siding; the roof is made of white cedar shingles. No plywood or anything else potentially toxic was used. The entire coop was finished inside and out with raw linseed oil - my favorite finish!

I have found that building exclusively with all-natural materials is actually a very rare feature among chicken coops. There are some very tempting man-made products out there, like thin, lightweight sheets of plywood (made with toxic glues that offgas), or cheap and lightweight metal roofing (coated with toxic paints or galvanized coatings that leach into the rainwater and poison the ground), or contemporary paints and finishes (often containing toxic solvents, UV stabilizers or mold inhibitors).

Lightweight and portable: Here is a side-view of the finished chicken tractor, so you can see the positioning of the handles and wheels. The beauty of the "chicken tractor" is that it can easily be moved around the yard by a single person, much like a wheelbarrow: the coop, nesting boxes, feeders and waterers are all positioned directly above the wheels, so it's surprisingly lightweight for the person wheeling it around the yard.


Easy to use: I wanted to design the chicken tractor so that chores would be a breeze: access to the nesting boxes, access to the feeder and waterer, and an easy method for cleaning out the coop were all high on the priorities list. The three little doors in the photos above are access doors for the nesting boxes. Directly underneath the nesting boxes is the access door for the feeders and waterer. In the photos above, the access door has been closed for the night, to keep the chickens safe and to keep animals from getting into the feed.
An inside view of the access door for feeders and waterer, closed for the night.
The two feeders and waterer, underneath the nesting boxes.

The photo above shows the feeders and waterer, underneath the nesting boxes. I decided to use two linear rabbit feeders, rather than the usual round feeders, to conserve space in the coop. With my four sexlink hens, the feeders can hold enough feed to last them three to four days. By keeping the feeders and waterer linear, I was able to position them all underneath the nesting boxes, providing easy access for the owner. The nesting boxes overhead also protect the feeders from droppings falling from the roosting bars above.

The waterer is a bit innovative as well: like the feeders, I wanted the waterer to be linear, but I didn't want to over-complicate things with pipes supplying water to drinker cups or nipples. The simple water trough wasn't good enough either, as the water can quickly become fouled with droppings or kicked up dirt. By providing access to the watering trough through portholes, the water is kept crystal-clear.

Built with the comfort of its inhabitants in mind: There is definitely a well-developed feng shui for chicken coop design, which I find fascinating. How do you build a nesting box in such a way, that your hens will never feel a desire to lay elsewhere? How do you build a coop that fills your hens with a sense of unshakable security and peace of mind? Especially in a small coop like the one described here, the positioning of every element is important.

The photo above and to the left shows a side-view of the feeders and waterer, which are at about chest-height. This keeps the food and water clean, out of range of droppings or scratched-up dirt. Also, keeping the feeders at chest-height discourages the hens from "beaking" the food, or digging through it with their beaks and throwing it all over the floor in the process.

The photo above and to the right shows the positioning of the roosting bars overhead. There are two roosting bars, made of 2x4's laid on their sides. This is actually the perfect dimensions for a roosting bar, so that the hens' feet can lay flat while they sleep, rather than wrapped around the bars like other birds do. The roosting bars are two feet off the ground, which is high enough to keep the hens feeling safe, but any higher and they might hurt themselves jumping down in the morning.

This final photo shows one of the hens enjoying a nesting box. The boxes have a low ceiling of ten inches, to discourage the hens from standing up and scratching through the bedding. There is also a threshold of three inches that they must step over to enter the nesting boxes, which helps to keep the bedding in place.

Building this chicken tractor was a lot of fun, and at times it was pretty challenging to fit all the different elements together in a compact, lightweight design. And of course, working with natural materials like wood and raw linseed oil is a pleasure all on its own. But, like other natural building projects, perhaps the greatest pleasure for me now is to see the coop's inhabitants living in harmony with the design, and appreciating the craftsmanship, love, and thoughtfulness that went into it.

You can read more about inventive chicken coop designs in my previous blog post Redesigning the Chicken Ark: Unadilla Community Farm.

- Ben

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