What is a chicken tractor?
A chicken tractor is a moveable chicken coop.
Chicken tractors come in many sizes and are made to be moved around. Many have wheels on one side to make them easier to move.
Chicken tractors are particularly good for keeping chickens in small backyards and rental houses. They can also be used in the veggie garden, moving chickens around to clean up and fertilise different beds. Many pastured egg farmers now use giant chicken tractors, holding hundreds of hens, combined with electrified netting fences, to move chickens around a paddock.
What are the benefits of a chicken tractor?
So why would you want a chicken tractor? There are lots of benefits to having a moveable chicken coop:
- Chicken tractors take up less space than a standard coop
- Chickens have regular access to fresh greens and bugs, meaning healthier birds and better eggs
- No more bare patches in the yard! Moving the tractor gives plants time to recover
- Chickens can be moved around to eat weeds or fertilise the soil
- Moving the coop can prevent birds from getting parasites like mites, lice and worms
- You can position the coop to suit the season, providing shade in summer and avoiding muddy spots in wet weather
- Chicken tractors are perfect for rental houses and places where you don't want to build a permanent coop
If you have a standard chicken coop, a chicken tractor can still be a useful addition. You can use a chicken tractor to give your chickens a change of scenery, to clean up garden beds, as a brood box, to raise chicks, as a hospital coop, for quarantine or when introducing new chickens to the flock.
How much space does a chicken tractor need?
Although chicken tractors themselves are often tiny, and they are good for small backyards, you still need more space than you think.
The point of a chicken tractor is to move it often, and not return to the same spot until the grass or plants have grown back. So even though the chicken tractor itself is tiny, you will still need enough space for 10-30+ moves before returning to the first spot that you parked the tractor. That means that you need 10-30 times the footprint of the chicken tractor.
Are there any negatives to a chicken tractor?
If you choose the right-sized chicken tractor for your flock, ensure it is well-made and select a chicken tractor that you are able to move easily, there aren't many negatives to a chicken tractor.
Size is important
There are many chicken tractors for suburban backyards available online. Many of these are very small, often only 2 square metres. These small chicken tractors are only suitable for 2-3 chickens, ideally a small or bantam variety. They should be moved every day or so unless your birds are also free-ranging.
But there are also giant chicken tractors available for moving around farms. So as long as you choose a suitable chicken tractor for your flock and situation, size is not an issue.
Think about climate
In most parts of Australia, chickens suffer from the summer heat. It would be cruel to leave them in an unshaded chicken tractor in the heat of the day. And in southern areas, winter cold can also be harsh if the chicken tractor is not sheltered and insulated.
Because they are so compact, chicken tractors may be hotter and colder than a standard chicken coop. The small size also means that your chooks cannot move to a cooler or warmer spot if they are uncomfortable.
Ensure you have enough room to keep the chicken tractor in the shade during the summer months, or make shade for it. If you are in a cold climate, also consider whether the chicken tractor will be warm enough in winter.
If you are buying a chicken tractor, make sure it is well-made. We have heard from hundreds of customers who bought cheap, wooden chicken tractors online only to find that they broke after a few moves.
Well-made chicken tractors will prevent predators from harming your chickens.
Also, moving the chicken tractor causes strain to the structure. It is really important that the frame is solid, or it will break after a few moves. Metal or hardwood are the best choices. Designs with wheels also tend to last longer because the wheels take a lot of the strain out of moving.
Make sure you can move it
Many of the wooden chicken tractors sold online are marketed as "light" and "easy to move for one person". But because the structure itself is flimsy, even if the coop has wheels it requires 2 people to move it in order to prevent damage.
Although metal and hardwood chicken tractors are a much better choice, they are much heavier. So ensure you are going to be able to move the tractor and choose an option with wheels!
How often should you move a chicken tractor?
How often you need to move a chicken tractor depends on its size, how many chickens you have and on where it is, e.g. on the lawn or in a garden.
But it is very important that you move the chicken tractor regularly and that you don't return to the same spot too often.
Moving the chicken tractor regularly
One of the main benefits of a chicken tractor is that it allows you to move your chickens to new ground.
Because chicken tractors are so small, moving them regularly is important for your chickens' wellbeing. New ground provides a change of scenery, as well as nutritious fresh forage and insects.
If you don't move the chicken tractor, the ground underneath will turn to dirt in no time. Your chooks will be less satisfied too.
Usually, the chicken tractor should be moved every 1-3 days. But the size of the foraging area and how many chickens you have plays a role. If you can see dirt appearing in the grass or a build up of manure, it is definitely time to move the chicken tractor.
A week is about the maximum amount of time a chicken tractor could stay in one spot, but this would be too long in most circumstances. Plants recover better and more quickly if the chickens are moved after a couple of days. If the ground is bare or patchy, recovery will take much longer and weeds may become a problem.
Returning to the same spots
Chicken tractors borrow from regenerative agriculture principles in order to keep your lawn green and free of dirt patches.
Chickens scratch up the soil and eat plants and insects. If left in one spot, they will quickly kill all of the plants and create bare soil. But if they are moved away, the spot where they have been will recover. With the chicken manure providing fertiliser, in a couple or weeks or months you will not be able to tell that chickens have been there.
Moving your chicken tractor regularly, and allowing plenty of time before you put the tractor into a spot where it has already been, gives plants time to recover from the chickens.
How long plants need to recover depends on the time of year (plants grow more quickly in summer), rainfall (plants need water to grow), the type of plants (some plants grow more quickly than others) and how severely the plants were impacted by the chickens in the first place (see above).
In general, the longer you can allow before you return your chicken tractor to the first spot, the better. But you can also judge by eye: if the ground where the tractor was looks as well-covered by grass as it did before, it has recovered and you can put the chicken tractor there again.
Tips for using a chicken tractor in the garden
Chicken tractors can be a wonderful tool for the gardener, especially in the vegetable garden.
Even though we have a chicken coop and run, we also have a small chicken tractor where the girls go on holiday when we need them in the garden. We rotate our garden helpers and only leave chickens in the tractor for a few days at a time. This chicken tractor is also a convenient home for broodies and new chicks.
The problem with chickens in the garden is that they kill plants and make a mess. But they also eat pests and weeds, and till and fertilise the soil. By using a chicken tractor, you get all the benefits of chickens in the garden, with none of the problems.
Gardeners can put a chicken tractor into the garden after a crop is finished. The chickens will eat pests, weeds and the left over crops. They turn this into on-the-spot fertiliser, while also turning over and scratching up the soil, so it is nice for planting.
If left in one spot long enough, chickens will even completely kill grass or plants. We do this in really weedy garden beds, or when making a garden from lawn.
Chicken manure is quite strong, so the garden bed should be left to sit for awhile after the chickens have moved on. We usually mulch the bed after the chickens are moved, and then wait a few weeks before planting. Because of all of the chicken fertiliser, we plant heavy feeders like brassicas, corn or tomatoes first, before things like salad greens.
The only issue we've found with using chickens in the garden is finding a chicken tractor that fits the garden beds!
More chicken coop articles:
- How big should your chicken coop be?
- The best chicken coop (or tractor) materials
- What is a chicken run and do you need one?
- Chicken roosts - why broomsticks don't work
Happy chicken keeping!
Rachael at Dine a Chook