My husband and I had both been dreaming of tractors …
His dream was of a tractor that he could attach things to (front loaders, back hoes, augers, brush hogs). My idea of a tractor, however, was a movable coop that I could strategically place in my yard or garden. My dream was that while I was at work or away from the house, the chickens could still have a place to safely “free range” on bugs and weeds and at the same time, scratch up the soil in my garden and deposit their “fertilizer.”
The purpose of a chicken tractor is simple: It’s movable, it lacks a floor (which allows the chickens to forage and scratch), it provides shelter and protection from the weather and predators, and it has a separate nesting area. Jeff chose to build an A-frame design, which he originally intended to be more of a chicken “sled.” The plan was that I could easily pull or slide the tractor, but when he had completed the frame it took both of us pulling, pushing and lifting to move it even a short distance. The “sled” then became a “tractor” when he added wheels to the front and back of the portable coop. It’s still a little hard for me to maneuver over our rocky/hilly soil, but it’s doable and I’ve put the tractor to use in a variety of ways.
When he first completed the tractor in the spring I used it as a nursery for my new chicks. This was the perfect setup for introducing the younger birds to the older hens. They could see each other (and get to know each other), but the little pullets were separated and protected from the older birds chasing and pecking them.
This fall I finally started using the chicken tractor for what I originally dreamed of and it couldn’t have come at a better time. Not only is the tractor a great way to weed and fertilize the garden beds, it’s also given me some peace of mind knowing that my chickens aren’t roaming too far. Since I started letting my flock free-range earlier in the summer, they have became braver and more adventurous in their foraging. Last week I found them acres away from the coop–exploring the neighbor’s garden! I’m afraid that in addition to the common chicken predators (foxes, raccoons, hawks), I now need to add the neighborhood dogs, cats and maybe even the neighbors (if they destroy their gardens)!
I did run into a few obstacles, however, when I first started using the tractor. The first was actually getting the chickens into the tractor and next, how to get them to lay an egg in the tractor …
I think that I’m the perfect picture of a chicken-keeper who loves her chickens. I’ve handled them since they were a day old, I feed them treats routinely, they’re overly protected from predators, and they have 5-star accommodations. You would think that they would have the utmost trust in me and allow me to handle or hold them, but that’s not the case.
Athena, my Golden-Laced Wyandotte, is convinced that I want to eat her and she has somewhat of an influence over the rest of the flock. I think she must have told them that chicken tractor was a dangerous, evil place, because they all became terrified of going anywhere near my portable coop. When I did get a few chickens in the tractor, they freaked out–perhaps because they were separated or maybe because they were confined in this scary place. I gave up on forcing them (because it wasn’t working) and started leaving the tractor door open and sprinkling the ground with their favorite treat–meal worms. It only took a few days before they realized that the tractor wasn’t the doomsday coop they had envisioned. Now it only takes me a few minutes to transport the chickens from their run to the tractor!
The inside of the tractor is pretty simple: There’s a ramp that leads to the “loft” area that includes one wooden nesting box. I also include a small container of chicken feed and water. It’s not set up as a predator-proof chicken tractor, and once the sun starts to set I transport them back into their secure coop.
I had noticed when I first started keeping them in the tractor that the moment I let them out a couple of girls would quickly run back into their home-coop and lay an egg in record time. I think they had been holding it in for hours! I guess they didn’t think the nesting area in the tractor was an acceptable place to lay an egg. I solved this dilemma by simply placing a couple of eggs in the nesting box and they eventually figured it out.
One thing that I love about using the tractor is the fact that I can control where and what the chickens eat. When they are truly free-ranging, they are on the move constantly. They would never dream of eating the weeds out of my vegetable garden when they can hunt down worms, bugs or grubs, but when weeds are all that’s available–they’ll eat them!
The “fertilizer” they deposit needs to have a few months to age before I plant my spring crops, so I plan on moving the tractor out of the vegetable garden sometime around January. Then I’ll just move it in different spots around the yard.
I still let the flock free-range around our property (if I’m outside and can periodically check on them), but the chicken tractor has proven to be everything I dreamed it would be!
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To view what else is happening at our southwest Missouri property, visit the garden-roof coop.