Chicken tractor

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Also written up in Communities Magazine and Permaculture Activist Magazine.

Future chicken tractor.
In Permaculture, animals are valued for the many services they provide, whereas in industrialized farming, animal use is optimized for a single purpose.

For example, in industrial farming, egg chickens are crowded into tiny cubic-foot cages, with a moving conveyer belt carrying feed past their heads, a slope and another belt under their egg-laying parts, and another to carry off excrement. The excrement is viewed as "waste" by the industrial farmer, who must do something with it periodically, often paying someone to take it away.

Carol beats part of the trailer into a lid for the nesting boxes.
In Permaculture, the goal is zero waste. A chicken tractor is a mobile chicken coop with a porous floor, so that chicken excrement falls through to the earth and becomes fertilizer. When the earth underneath has had enough fertilizer, the chicken tractor is moved to another location.

We fretted and planned for how we were going to build such a thing, and where we'd get the parts. Wheels and axles and hitches and such are expensive.

Found Resources 1

Then one day we were at the recycling depot, and saw an old camping tent trailer. The top was long gone, but the bottom looked serviceable. Unfortunately, they wouldn't let us have it. So we put out on the grapevine that we were looking for such a thing, and within a few days, had five offers! It seems everyone has one of these things sitting on their property that they want to get rid of!

So we pulled it home, got rid of the canvas, cut out the decaying floor, and built nesting boxes to go on either end. It had two sheet-metal internal dividers that we pulled out that might have just been scrapped, but Carol brilliantly noticed that they were just the right size for roofs for the nesting boxes. She hammered one edge flat (which also made a reinforced point for attaching hinges) and we painted them with aluminum Rust-Oleum so the nesting boxes wouldn't get so hot.

Found Resources 2

Carol attaches mill slab siding.
Our veterinary neighbors, Dave and Sasha, had cut down some cedars and had them milled on-site to make a barn. They were going to burn all the slash and other waste, but we volunteered that we'd "clean it up for them." The smallest bits went into berms, medium-sized bits got run through the wood chipper, but the largest pieces, the "mill slabs" that remain when a round tree is cut into rectangular lumber, make great siding when lapped.

So Dave stripped the bark off and we used "gold screws" to attach the mill slabs as siding to the chicken tractor. The screws were all driven from the inside, through drilled shank holes, so that they would draw the siding together and eliminate the worst gaps. (We call the remaining gaps ventilation.)

Mill slabs as siding makes for a rustic look.
This results in construction that is free, fairly weather-tight, ventilated, and not altogether displeasing to the eye -- "Abe Lincoln meets Bill Mollison." We mount the slabs full-length, then use a demolition saber saw with a 30cm (12") blade to sculpt the ends a bit for some additional aesthetic appeal.

A couple old cedar two-by-fours salvaged from a deck re-build made framing and bracing for the door, and we simply saber-saw along the braces to cut a combination doorway-ramp into the side where the camper's door originally was. A couple "T" hinges attached to the metal frame and some slats for a chicken ladder complete the sides.

Found Resources 3

Jan attaches bracing in the floor.
The floor was more of a challenge. The original floor had rotted out in places, but we only needed enough on the edge to attach furring strips to secure the mesh. To do so, we had to put some additional support in the floor, as we could not find hardware cloth wider than 3', and we needed 6' to cover the floor.

You can see the new supports running down the center of the trailer. All it took was a few holes in the frame and some more gold screws, supplemented with polyurethane glue.

Carol attaches edging for securing the hardware cloth floor.
We rip parts of the original floor that were not rotted into 12cm (5") strips to replace the sections that had rotted, and attach them to the frame. Later, the hardware cloth is attached to these edges via furring strips ripped from the same cedar decking we salvaged for other parts of the structure.

Found Resources 4

When you put a lot of effort into something, you don't really want it to rot away in the rain -- at least not for a while. This means such a project isn't "finished" until it's finished. Before beginning construction, we had wire-brushed the trailer and coated it with Rust-Oleum primer -- that ugly red/brown paint you often see peeking out from the fenders and wheel wells of older cars. Now we put two coats of white Rust-Oleum on top, to brighten it up a little. Future plans are to sponge-paint that for a more festive look. Both these paints had been purchased for a different project that never happened, and so they were essentially "free," since they were just sitting around the place.

Finishing the wood was a bit more contentious. We had some fine wood finishes sitting around, but we really wanted to save those for things that want to look nice, like the unfinished cabinets and doors the prior owners had left for us in the house.

Nearly-complete chicken tractor in the east orchard.
This particular trailer came complete with a half-gallon of lacquer thinner in a can, which we discovered when we got it home. We probably would have politely removed it before transport had we found it earlier, but it turned out to be "a good thing" that we hadn't.

One inexhaustible non-renewable resource that is clogging landfills is Styrofoam. Very few recycling places will take it, and most people either chuck it in the landfill, or have a pile of it in their garage or basement, waiting for some purpose. We had such a pile, and the lacquer thinner let us "stack functions," getting rid of the polystyrene without clogging a landfill and protecting our mill slabs at the same time!

To make a clear polystyrene wood finish, simply dissolve Styrofoam in lacquer thinner! Keep adding and adding until it's the consistency you like -- thicker is better. It took the Styrofoam packing from a couple desktop computers and a few other electronic items to make a half-gallon of polystyrene lacquer. It soaked nicely into the dry yellow cedar mill slabs, and quickly dried to a tough, plastic finish.

Be very careful when trying this! Lacquer thinner is toxic and extremely flammable. Do this in a well-ventilated area, and though it's fun and satisfying to watch the Styrofoam dissolve, don't stand directly over your mixing container, or you'll breathe fumes and risk getting splashes on your skin and eyes. Avoid getting the preparation on skin, as it forms a tough, hard coating that is difficult to remove.

Happy Chickens

Carol fetching eggs from new chicken tractor.
We didn't quite have the whole thing finished when tragedy struck.

The chickens had come suddenly, via a free Craig's List offer. We didn't have time for a proper coop in the beginning, and Carol and Dave had cobbled-up a functional, but temporary structure made from bits of old fencing, tarps, pond liner, and an old chain-link gate. But that was no match for a hungry raccoon one night. He only got one hen, but that was enough.

We'd been making steady progress on the chicken tractor; all the construction work was complete at the time of the massacre, but other than the primer, nothing had been painted. The plan was to paint it over the next several days before turning it over to the chickens.

But we moved it in the day after the raccoon's feast, fearing he'd be back for more. Dave put the white topcoat on the metal parts while a few of the hens helped. (We still call one of them "whitey".)

Our egg yield has gone up somewhat since they moved into their new "camper." But more importantly, the nesting boxes have reduced the egg-eating down to a bare minimum. Our chickens seem to like their new digs!

Put to the test, the new "chicken camper" seems to function well. After getting the white paint on, we moved it to the west orchard. Although it has a proper hitch for moving with the tractor, Carol, Dave, and Jan were able to manually push it over to the new location with only a little bit of sweating and swearing.

Like to know more about our chicken tractor? Have other comments or suggestions? Let us know!

Tools

  • Circular saw with carbide blade, used for cutting out the floor and for starting cuts for the door.
  • Demolition saber saw, with 12" demolition blade, for sculpting the mill slab siding and cutting the door.
  • Table saw, with 24-tooth rip blade, for cutting nesting boxes and turning salvaged 2x4s into lath and roosts.
  • Angle grinder with thin metal cutting disk, for cutting the legs and screw ends.
  • Corded electric drill, for pilot holes and extra power for holes in metal.
  • Battery drill, for driving screws.
  • Pop rivet tool, for attaching nesting box lids.

Materials

  • One abandoned camping tent trailer, with fiberglass top. free!
  • Two 4'x8' sheets of OSB (oriented strand board) for nesting boxes. on hand (any wood sheet goods could be used)
  • Mill slabs for siding. free!
  • Six 4" "T" hinges, for nesting box lids. $18
  • Two 6" "T" hinges, for ramp/door. $8
  • 2.5" gold screws. on hand
  • Pop rivets. on hand
  • 12' by 4" rubber pond liner, to weather-proof nesting box lids. on hand
  • 15' by 3' plastic hardware cloth, for floor. $24
  • Styrofoam packaging material, for wood finish free!
  • 1/2 gallon Rust-Oleum rusty metal primer. on hand
  • 1/2 gallon Rust-Oleum white paint. on hand
  • One gallon lacquer thinner. 1/2 free, balance was $12

Total out-of-pocket cost: $62!

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