The Chicken Tractor

Chicken Tractors are a classic Permaculture idea, making multiple use of (a.k.a. “stacking”) the elements in question.The idea is that you have a lightweight house with attached run, which is used to intensively cultivate an area of garden. By confining the birds to a comparatively small area, they will work the soil much more thoroughly than if left to their own devices, and can be moved on to new ground (with fresh grass/weeds/bugs etc) every few weeks. Rather than you doing the weeding, digging and fertilising (a.k.a. “hard physical work”), the chickens get to be chickens – eat, drink, poo, scritch, hunt and tear the heck out of the garden – doing all those jobs for you as they go. Enjoying themselves as they do so. And if you keep tossing in mulch material (straw, grass clippings, vegie scraps etc), they’ll even turn it into compost in situ.

Seems obvious, doesn’t it? Not only do you get eggs and entertainment, but you get your garden weeded and fertilised as well. Bargain! That’s the thing with permaculture – once you hear about it, it seems blindingly obvious.And it’s often just a matter of adjusting your mindset– one fairly classic saying is you don’t have a slug problem; you have a duck deficiency. Or in our case: the brassicas aren’t at the mercy of cabbage-white caterpillars – we have a free protein source for the chooks! (We even protect the little ones!)

How it all began

We knew we wanted to build a chicken tractor, but which design?

We’d read Linda Woodrow’s Permaculture Home Garden book with great interest. Much as we liked her hemi-spherical hoop design, it wasn’t practical for the shape and size of our garden. Nor did we fancy its chances in a typical Canterbury nor’wester. Then we read Andy Lee’s book, Chicken Tractor, and decided that his low, rectangular, “bed-width” tractor was the right way to go.

The existing vegie beds were 1.5m by 2.5 m, so we made the tractor that size – in theory plenty of room for 3 hens, more if we rotated often enough. The nestboxes were attached externally (to the back – a bad idea, as it happened), and the “house” was only 90 cm deep – enough for comfortable perching, but not for spending the day in. We wanted to make sure they would be warm enough in winter, so higher perching density seemed the way to go.

We decided that we wanted to be as eco-friendly as possible, so the house was constructed of mainly salvaged materials. This meant a lot of time stripping old varnish, gib cement, etc etc, off beams and sheets of plywood, and spending the afternoons oiling them with boiled linseed oil. We even insulated the roof – a box frame with corrugated iron on top and ply underneath, and a nice thick layer of scavenged wool-batts in the middle.

Initially we had one single perch running diagonally across the width of the house. This was ok while we only had Delilah, Bessie and Beatrice, but once Ella and Venus arrived it became problematic. Partly it was down to size – Ella and Venus weren’t as nimble as the other three, so they needed full space to be able to leap up onto the perch. If they went first, it was fine – either they’d shuffle along to the end, or Beatrice and Delilah would jump into the gap. But if they waited, there wouldn’t be enough room for them to feel comfortable about launching towards the perch. It took us a little while to work out what the cacophany of flapping and squawking every bedtime was about. Or why the two Australorp girls would sometimes spend the night on the floor.

We went with a modified “stairway to heaven” perch – three rails at gradually increasing heights. You’d expect the hens to jostle for position on the highest perch, but frankly our girls never bothered. Madame Bessie rarely ventures above the bottom rung, and Beatrice was invariably up top, snuggled between Delilah and one or other of the Australorps.

One thing we didn’t think of at first was covering the run. Four really wet days in a row convinced us that clearlite was our friend, so we hastily attached sheets of it to the run. It also meant that the food stayed dry, regardless of the weather (useful, as we didn’t want to take up house space with feed and water containers).

Sounds good, doesn’t it? And looked it too. The only problem – which was, and is, a biggie – was the weight. It weighs a ton. Seriously heavy. Which is good, in that it means it should be safe from dogs and so on (our section was un-gated for quite a while), but bad if you ever wanted to move it anywhere. Which is kinda the point of chicken tractoring. And did I mention the rear-mounted nestboxes? Which make it impossible to get close to the back of the house unless you do it from inside?!

Suffice to say that moving our chicken tractor was a task that required a lot of time, planning, sweat, pain and swearing. We swore that next time, (if there was a next time), we would make it much, much lighter …

Tractoring in Progress:

We first had the tractor on the orchard bed, between the pear and the plum.

  • We sowed some barley and wheat on a vacant bed, and moved the girls onto that after a month – just before Ella and Venus joined the flock.
  • The next rotation, a month or so later, was onto a bed that had been growing vegies – broccoli, carrots, beetroot and spinach. It was distinctly Jurassic Park, with the beasts roaming through the brassicas.
  • Then they moved forward, onto an area of lawn for a few weeks, while we built a temporary fence around two thirds of the orchard.
  • We shifted the tractor back to the third position, with the new fence butting on to the tractor. A cunning trap-door/hatch into the house meant that the girls could be given short periods of access to the orchard as well – it took them about three days to uproot most of the vegetation, and we’d been expecting it to last for a few months. Ah well.

By this stage it was winter. We had to keep the girls on this side of the garden, because it was the only place to get decent amounts of sunlight with the angle of the sun so low. This required Additional Cunning. Or, more accurately, Additional Cunning, Tomato Stakes and Chicken Wire …

We wanted to use the bed from the second rotation (ex barley) to grow onions and garlic. By this stage it had lots of weeds sprouting, and was a bit lumpy. So we bodged together an enclosure around the bed, with a narrow little laneway leading from the tractor to the bed. Brilliant!

It took the girls a few days to work it out. (Well, it took Delilah no time, Beatrice a little courage, and the others a couple of days.) But soon they were having a wonderful time, galloping from one end to the other, scritching like their petticoats were on fire and doing a fantastic job of weeding and fertilising. Trust me, there is no sight funnier than a big, old hen, gallumphing at full throttle.

After a fortnight there, we shifted them back to the lawn area, to build soil for us. We used the stake and netting technique to give them access to the bed that they’d previously been on. Again, they did a great job. (It was during this time that Bessie went broody, and that we lost Beatrice.)

By now the garden was getting a bit more light, so we shifted them sideways, and gave them periodic access to their previous bed. We even emptied the compost heap onto it – the girls had a wonderful time! It went from being a five foot tall heap to being spread all across the bed (remarkably evenly too) in the space of an hour. Venus showed a real talent for being able to spot (and hunt) centipedes. They stayed on these beds until November, when we finished fully enclosing the orchard. Since then, they’ve been living in the orchard – terrorising the red currants (we humans got none), digging under the hop vines, the apple tree, the honeysuckle … you name it.

The medium term plan, when we amalgamate the two flocks, is to shift the big girls into the Summer Palace – extended a bit, so it’s big enough for eight hens to not be on top of each other. We’ll sow some chook forage into the beds as they become vacant, and begin the whole process all over again, rotating them back into the orchard in between to prolong the herbage.
And the tractor? It will be recycled, and provide us with at least some of the materials for the next chicken coop, and our first intentionally permanent chookhouse: the Loft Style Apartment.

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