Sunday, September 28, 2014

A-Frame Chicken Tractor

There are lots of ways to raise chickens in one's backyard: free ranging, rotational pasturing, tractoring, etc.  Meat breeds tend to eat a lot of feed and gain weight quickly, and those traits have come at the expense of foraging behavior (cornish cross, we're looking at you).  One way to get those meat birds out in the fresh air a bit while forcing the little butterballs to eat some greenery (and poop around the yard instead of two feet from the feeder) is to put them on a bit of a diet and move them around in a chicken tractor.

So it was with our spring batch of chickens this year, and, as is our modus operandi, we wanted to put together a functional chicken tractor for the lowest cost possible.  We got all the wood for free from Craigslist, which saved us the majority of the price of constructing a tractor from all new materials (woo hoo!) We managed to construct a pretty robust mobile chicken fortress, although it is somewhat more of a workout to move around the yard than we were hoping for.  But here are our design details, judge and improve upon them as you see fit. (And leave suggestions in the comments section!)

Here's the general framing.  The base is made from 2 x 6s cut halfway through where the perpendicular pieces come across, leaving a 12" overhang to support a 'weasel skirt,' described below.  (Kind of like Lincoln Logs.) The base boards are 10' and 7' for the long and short sides, respectively, giving an internal dimension of 8' x'5', or 40 ft2.  The A-frame part is 2 x 4s, cut at about a 60° angle.  We tried to design it such that we'd be able to lift it ergonomically (i.e., by shrugging our shoulders), for which we calculated that at a height of 27.5", the handles, which would be situated at the outside of the triangle frame, would be 28" apart (similar to a wheel barrow).  For this application, 28" was probably 4" too wide, but we ended up needing more than a shoulder-shrug worth of height anyway (see below).

A close-up of the top edge.  The hardware cloth is one big piece from side-to-peak-to-side and a triangle piece across the end, with a few of the trimmings from the triangle used to fill in the gaps at the bottom of the triangle.

The handles went on the back, cut into the A-frame boards.  See five pictures down for a peek at how they're secured on the inside side.  The roof part and the back wall are cedar fence pickets.  The hardware cloth around the base (the weasel skirt) keeps digging predators out.  Neighborhood dogs and foxes, good luck!  May your claws be ground down to useless nubs before you eat our chickens.

On the front end is a go-kart (or dunebarrow) tire, with the wood supported by a piece of angle iron.  Cutting the bottom corner off the board makes it a lot easier to move around, although we could have helped ourselves out even more by putting the axle lower than we did.

The weasel skirt is held in place by some more old fence pickets.  Otherwise the inside edges tend to catch on the grass and get ripped off the boards.  The downside to supporting them this way is that the tires on the front end are now elevated, which means the back end needs to be raised even higher for the tractor to roll (like, at least two feet).  Lifting it too high lets the birds wander out as the tractor is being moved, but for cornish cross, that's ok.  They're not hard to catch.

On one side is a kind of Dutch door...

...that opens to allow access to birds or food and water buckets.  Opening the door panels also reveals exquisitely-calculated brace pieces!

Birds-eye-view (heh) through the top door.  A couple extra 2 x 4s provide a place to hang food and water buckets.  It works well for meat birds that don't really roost, but for lighter breeds, they'll roost on the center board and poop on the bucket lids.

Here's the view from the front...

...and other side for completeness.

Lastly, a word on wasting feed. The cornish cross are motivated by one thing: hunger.  In this picture, the general outline of the 'feeder end' of the tractor can be seen, with a big pile of wasted feed in the lower right corner.  The birds should be moved every day, even if there's good food available on the ground (the rest of the outline is their mess!). But they'll waste a lot if given free choice food all day long.  Yes, it will break down and end up feeding the pasture, but that's some expensive fertilizer!

In contrast, giving them a little less than they want will make for a lot less wastage.  You'll have to figure out where the magic amount of daily ration is for your flock.  For us, about 4 lbs per day for 10 birds was about right.  There's definitely still some visible in this picture, but if they're hungry, they'll spend their time eating the stuff off the ground instead of sitting around pooping on themselves.  (They'll probably still do that, too, but to a lesser extent.)  We even saw one eat a dandelion leaf once!

What does your chicken tractor look like?  How do you keep it light enough to move around the yard easily?  Let us know in the comments section below!


  1. My suggestion from my personal experience is that it might be easier to move if you could put the wheels under the shelter end (so the wheels support the weight).And put the handles on the screen end so you can see the birds as you move the be sure they are doing ok. But these things tend to be works in progress. ..and trial and error to see what works best for you.

    1. You're right! That would have been a good switcheroo. Thanks for the tip!