As much as I would like to let my chickens free range, there are far too many predators where I live from raccoons to foxes to skunks. I also do not want all my chickens crowded in the small run, however. I discovered a good compromise for getting a lot of the benefits of free ranging with the safety of a run: the chicken tractor.
Yes, it has a peculiar name, but it is an ingenious invention I learned from a video with Joel Salatin. It is a portable fenced enclosure with an open bottom where the chickens can eat bugs and greens and scratch and till soil.
I plan to keep two separate flocks. One in the tractor and one in the existing pen and coop. I can collect the manure from the stationary pen chickens and use the tractor throughout our field. Our septic drain field area is fenced in anyway and growing plenty of grass, so I might as well make use of it and let the chickens mow for me.
After I took down my temporary greenhouse from last winter, I had some spare small logs lying around. I resembled a rough a frame and wired and screwed them together. Though notching and all would look nicer, this was a basic project, and one of my first, so I kept things simple. I screwed a few supporting boards on and stapled chicken wire on. I recommend at least 1 inch chicken wire or even hardware cloth for some protection against small predators.
After stapling and tie wiring the fencing together and on, I used some spare panels of metal roofing lying around from when we bought the place. I cut them to length and screwed them to the logs and boards. I kept a gap between the ground and the roofing for ventilation. The roof keeps the chickens out of the hot or rainy weather and protects their feed and egg box from getting wet. Chickens also prefer a cozy high up place to roost for the night.
To discourage predators from digging under the tractor, I added a 2 foot width skirt around the base and attached 2x4s to the end. These can be folded up and attached to the side of the tractor when moving it off necessary.
I installed perches along the top to add dimension, giving them more room to spend their day and a few roosts for the night. I also constructed a basic egg box for multiple hens to lay at one time. I added a door to access the eggs from the outside.
I am working on a feeder and waterer that can be refilled from the outside that last at least a week.
Upon moving the chickens to their new home, they immediately started eating greens and bugs and scratching around. They even manage to take dust baths. All but one used the egg box right away, and that one has only lasted in the pen once. They use all the roost space. Mr. Rooster likes to roost in the egg box though, so if you want to prevent that, you can add a removable partition to keep them out of the box until morning.
This design is a little on the heavy side. Ideally I would have used lighter lumber or installed wheels to make it easier to drag and move. Perhaps I will add wheels later on.
If I wish to expand my garden, these chickens can be moved to weed and till the soil first, fertilizing it as they go. We also have lots of grasshoppers and other pests that like to eat some of our plants. The chickens may help control their population.
This tractor serves its purpose well. The chickens seem to enjoy the freedom and fresh air along with the new grass and bugs they keep from entering our garden.