For most of the year, I live about 15 minutes west of Tulsa, Oklahoma, where I teach a variety of biology classes at a community college. For three months each summer, however, I go home to Wisconsin so I can be closer to my family and teach part-time at a college in the Northwoods.
Sustainability is important to me, and, despite the challenges imposed by splitting time between homes located 1,000 miles apart, I decided a few years ago to produce some of my own food. Intending to minimize costs and mistakes, I started small: In Wisconsin, I grew and harvested blueberries and some cool-season veggies, and in Oklahoma, I grew tomatoes and peppers.
After my initial gardening success, raising chickens seemed like the logical next step. In the past couple of years, I’ve made some mistakes, but my decision to keep laying hens was a good one. The birds provide more eggs than I need, and they are always entertaining. Further, I have learned some useful things about raising chickens — particularly how to safely and easily transport a small flock over a long distance.
Constructing a transport vessel
Two years ago, I bought Rhode Island Red and White Leghorn chicks at a farm supply store near Tulsa, then worked my way through the process of raising them in a brooder and getting them off to a good start in a coop I built with salvaged materials.
While the young hens acclimated themselves to the coop and honed their foraging skills, I prepared for my inaugural 1,000-mile trip to Wisconsin with chickens in tow. My first project was to build a trailer that would transport the birds — and also serve aptly for other utilitarian purposes. For $230, I bought a DOT-certified 4-by-8-foot trailer from a discount tool store. After spending a couple of days laboriously bolting it together, I secured a plywood floor and constructed sides with scrap 2-by-4s and untreated plywood. The plywood quickly warped, so, in retrospect, pressure-treated plywood may have been a better choice.
In about four months, I would be transporting the chickens back to Oklahoma during the height of summer. The main concern at that time would be the birds overheating. So, I consulted with a friend who worked in the zoo industry for several decades and has a lot of experience transporting animals, including chickens. My friend said the chickens needed shade and ventilation, but he emphasized that they could not be subjected to a direct hot wind. In order to accommodate the requirement for indirect ventilation, I left a 1-inch gap between the floor of the trailer and the plywood sides. This would permit some airflow into the trailer. I also left the trailer uncovered, which improves ventilation.
The hens needed to be secure in the trailer, and they would need a place to stay in Wisconsin, so I built a chicken tractor that would accomplish both things. Using some scrap 2-by-4, poultry wire, hardware cloth, and a small section of chain-link fence, I built a sturdy chicken tractor that fit into the trailer. Two pieces of plywood covered half of the top of the tractor, thereby providing the hens some shade. One piece of plywood is securely screwed to the frame, and the other is attached to hinges so it can be opened like a door. At 21 inches high, the chicken tractor is shorter than the sides of the trailer, but it’s just tall enough to accommodate a perch mounted about a foot from the top.
Figuring that my birds would be most at ease if they couldn’t see out of the back of the chicken tractor while it was loaded in the trailer and moving down the road, I screwed a piece of plywood to the rear. A small hinged door cut into the back piece of plywood allows me to easily place items into the chicken tractor. Also, when the tractor is placed on the ground, the chickens use the door to enter and leave the tractor.
Plan in motion
When the time came to leave for Wisconsin, I attached the trailer to the hitch on my 1999 Nissan Sentra, and a friend helped me load the chicken tractor into the trailer. After opening the hinged door on top, I dumped wood chip mulch onto the floor of the trailer — bedding for the trip. Next, amongst the wood chips, I placed two large dish tubs onto the floor of the trailer. I put feed in one of them, and I lowered a five-gallon waterer into the other. If bumps in the road caused the water to splash, the tub would catch most of it. At dusk, once the chickens were roosting in the coop, I grabbed them and put them into the trailer. I then screwed two 2-by-4 cross braces to the top of the trailer. This kept the sides of the trailer firmly pressed against the sides of the chicken tractor. The front cross brace also prevented the hinged door on top of the tractor from being blown open during the drive.
The next morning, before pulling onto the highway, we stopped for gas. My one rooster immediately began crowing. This drew befuddled stares from patrons unaccustomed to hearing roosters at gas stations at 3 a.m. En route to Wisconsin, we stopped four more times, and to my delight, the rooster serenaded me each time.
Lesson in procrastination
Upon arriving in Wisconsin, I parked the trailer in the garage. A neighbor helped me move the chicken tractor to the lawn, and then I stuck the birds into it. Probably relieved to be out of the trailer, they immediately started eating grass and bugs. The birds seemed safe, so I decided to leave them in the chicken tractor until I could erect a fence. Regrettably, I procrastinated a little too long. The fourth morning I was in Wisconsin, as soon as I looked outside, a red fox trotted by carrying a dead hen. After breaking through a section of poultry wire, the fox had killed the birds and scattered their carcasses in neighbors’ yards.
This was heartbreaking, but I learned two important lessons. First, always use heavier duty wire than seems necessary. Second, don’t procrastinate with erecting a fence. Despite the tragedy, I was undeterred. I reinforced the chicken tractor and erected a portable fence electrified by a solar charger. Shortly thereafter, I purchased six 1-year-old hens.
My new hens adapted quickly to their new home and started laying eggs everywhere — in the chicken tractor, in holes they excavated in the lawn, in five-gallon buckets, and in grass right out in the open. I wanted to encourage them to lay all of their eggs in the same place, so I moved a large insulated doghouse that I had obtained for free into the chicken pasture. After putting some grass clippings inside, I waited for the hens to make their nests in the structure. After two days of carefully studying the doghouse, the hens finally ventured inside. They evidently liked it, as all six birds switched to laying their eggs in the same nest inside the doghouse.
At the end of summer, I loaded the chicken tractor, the birds, and the fence into the trailer, and we left Wisconsin. Upon arriving in Oklahoma, I discovered that two of the birds had laid an egg while traveling down the interstate. I moved the birds into the chicken yard, and they started exploring their Oklahoma pasture. At dusk, the birds didn’t know what to do. They were accustomed to going to the chicken tractor at night, but it was still on the trailer. I tried to shoo them into the coop, but they refused. It was new and scary. A neighbor helped me move the tractor into the pen, and the birds continued to roost in it for the next couple of weeks. Eventually one of them was brave enough to venture into the coop, and the others soon followed.
This past summer, the chickens and I travelled back to Wisconsin. After three months in Wisconsin, we had an uneventful trip back to Oklahoma. My birds have now travelled over 3,000 miles in that trailer; they may be the most well-traveled chickens in the country.
Build your own portable coop! Learn how in DIY Chicken Coop for Broilers, on a Tight Budget.
Ryan Paruch is a biology professor, sustainability enthusiast, silent sports buff, and nature lover. He and his chickens divide their time between Oklahoma’s Cross Timbers and Wisconsin’s Northwoods.