At about $50 to build, this movable chicken tractor is durable and about as cheap and simple as they come — and doubles as a cold frame!
As the number of people interested in growing their own food continues to grow, raising a small flock of backyard chickens for meat has become more widespread. From large flocks in rural fields to abandoned parking lots that harbor a handful of birds, chicken coops are popping up everywhere.
Last year, when I started my own small farm, building a DIY chicken coop for broiler chickens was at the top of the priority list. At first, the task felt a bit overwhelming as I scoured the Internet and print catalogs in search of ingenious concepts. What did I find? A plethora of prefabricated chicken coops in a wide variety of designs, ranging from basic wooden A-frames to fancy miniature log cabins equipped with sliding windows and rain gutters — one or two might have even been air-conditioned.
These coops were fun to admire, but they all had one flaw in common: They were out of my budget. I needed a design that was portable, protected my flock, allowed my birds to forage, and it had to be built on a shoestring budget. Blogs and forums were helpful in terms of suggestions and eye candy, but when I shut down the laptop and picked up John Seymour’s book, The Self-Sufficient Life and How to Live It, I found my practical inspiration. Seymour’s do-it-yourself approach to just about everything reminded me that I didn’t need any fancy designs or materials. All I needed was a simple bird cage — and that is what I built.
I should mention up front that you won’t find my DIY chicken coop in a designer catalog, but if your goal is chicken in the freezer, follow along with these simple steps.
My goal was to conserve resources and save money by avoiding the use of a gas-powered engine to move my relatively large chicken tractor on a daily basis. I also knew that late spring and early summer would bring dramatic weather to the hills of Vermont by way of wind and rain. All it would take was one good gust of wind to knock over my chicken coop and expose the birds to predators and weather.
DIY chicken coop materials
3 – 8-foot 2-by-4s
1 – 4-foot-by-8-foot plywood 3⁄4-inch thick
3 – 3/4-inch 10-foot
1 – 25-inch-by-50-foot roll of chicken wire, medium gauge with 1-inch holes
1 – 7-foot-by-10-foot tarp
3 – 12-foot 1-by-4s
8 feet of nylon rope
2 small door latches
4 small hinges
200 zip ties
I decided to build the frame with three 8-foot 2-by-4s. The lumber was adequately durable and light enough to remain portable by my own human means. To build the frame, I cut one 2-by-4 in half and created a simple rectangle using those two 4-foot pieces and the other two 8-footers. (View the Image Gallery for building diagrams.)
Kicking around the woodshed, I noticed a few 1-by-4 boards that measured 12 feet in length that I could finally put to good use. I cut one board to 8 feet (the length of the coop) that would eventually run diagonally across the middle of the frame from corner to corner to offer support and provide a low perch for some of the chickens. But first I took the remaining piece of the 1-by-4 and cut it into four small pieces and used them to hold each of the four corners together. This is an important step that prevented my frame from coming apart as I moved it around the field all season long. Fixing a broken coop out in a field with chickens foraging and frolicking all around your workspace is not ideal.
Next, I screwed that diagonal piece into place, attaching it to the top of the corner braces, and I later cut another 1-by-4 to 8 feet and placed it diagonally at the opposite corners. This added some space for birds to perch as I added broilers. You also can hold off on installing these pieces, which makes it a little easier to work on your coop during assembly.
The next step was working on the back wall and the primary door for access. Because my 1/2-inch plywood was 4 feet in length and the same size as the width of my frame, all I needed to do was take one of my 10-foot PVC pipes and bend it to the shape of my future shell, place it on the plywood, and cut my piece out with a jigsaw.
To establish my door, I found a piece of scrap wood that was a good size for a door and placed it in the middle of my back wall, then traced it. The jigsaw made short work of the door and door opening. I trimmed about 1/8 inch from the door to allow room for my hinges and latch, which I next installed. It is crucial to shave off just enough room to allow the door to swing freely, without leaving too much room for potential predators to squeeze through. Once the wall and door functioned properly, I found some leftover brown and white paint and created a pseudo barn door, giving my structure a little style, yet not deviating from its rustic, gritty mission.
Now I needed to build a protective hoop-style shell. Accomplish this by taking three PVC pipes and bending them across the width of the frame and screwing them to the 2-by-4s of the frame; one at each end (attached at the corners of the base frame) and one in the middle. The 10-foot pipes worked perfectly.
Once I had three hoops ready to act as my shell, I cut another 1-by-4 to 8 feet and ran it across the top of my structure, screwing it to the top of the door frame and to each PVC pipe.
Next, I built the protective layer using a medium-grade chicken wire with 1-inch holes to avoid problems with weasels — smaller mesh wire may be even better depending on the kinds of predators taking aim at your flock.
I chose chicken wire because it’s inexpensive, protects well, and allows tremendous airflow and sunlight into your coop, which creates a recipe for sanitation and health within the flock.
Brand-new chicken wire in a roll can be frustrating to work with since it likes to coil itself back into a roll without warning. After several wrestling matches with my chicken wire, I stapled the wire to the outside of the base 2-by-4s before I unrolled it. Then all I had to do was lay it over the top of my shell and staple it fast to the other side.
Staples are cheap, so don’t be shy. After I snipped the wire just below the staples and repeated the process a few times so that the entire shell was covered (including the end opposite the door and over the hoop part — don’t forget to cover the gap between the plywood and the PVC), I had my bird cage. In order to mend the chicken wire together and prevent gaps in the shell, I used zip ties to bond the separate strips of wire. Use plenty.
To complete the outer shell, I took an old 7-foot-by-10-foot tarp and stapled one end to the back wall, blanketed my cage, and pulled the tarp back roughly halfway to allow half of the cage to be in direct sun and the other half be covered. Adding the tarp is a critical step as it provides access to shade and protection from heavy rain.
So far so good, and the only question that remained was, “How will I move the coop?” The solution came in the form of two 7/8-inch eye bolts and a 3/8-inch nylon rope. I simply fed the rope through the eyes of the bolts that I screwed to the base frame on the end opposite the door, tied a big knot on each end — preventing it from slipping back through — and I was done. After a few test pulls around the backyard, I gave the design a thumbs-up and moved my 4-week-old chicks from their brooder room into their new home. Watching them experience lush green grass for the first time was almost as exciting as knowing that my brooder room chores for the season were finished.
Admiring the chickens as they foraged for the first time had me feeling pretty proud of myself. But no project can be complete without a few lessons learned. For instance, rather than screwing the PVC directly to the frame itself, I would spend a few extra dollars and use hanger brackets to attach the pipes to the frame. Because I didn’t do that, I had a pipe break, which cost me another trip the hardware store. For the door, I would use at least 3/4-inch plywood rather than 1/2-inch. When it rains one day and turns hot the next, thin plywood warps easily, making it difficult to open and close. And if I had to do it all over again, the most fundamental improvement I would make would be to use a thicker rope as means for relocation. This simple improvement would make pulling the coop a bit more pleasant. When the pasture reaches 18 inches in height, your hands can really take a beating during a summer of pasture-based chicken farming.
Later, after my broilers had been processed, removing one of my diagonal roosting boards was a breeze, and the structure quickly converted to a cold frame for spinach, kale and greens.
While the construction of this DIY chicken coop was accomplished in less than four hours, the benefits were immeasurable. In one afternoon, I had built housing for 30 birds that were free to range in daylight all summer, while they retired to clean bedding each evening, safe from predators. Even in late August when Hurricane Irene hit, my chicken coop remained unscathed and never moved an inch. Perhaps the achievement I am most proud of is that I lost zero birds in the pasture last year, letting them range enclosed with an electric fence during the day and closing them in, in my $50-coop, at night. My cheap, do-it-yourself chicken housing was a success around the farm, and now in midwinter, chicken dinners with dignity are nothing short of luxurious.
Nathan Winters is a rural-living advocate and spends his days bootstrapping a small farm in rural Vermont. He’s in the process of finding a publisher for his book inspired by his bike ride across rural America. Connect with him at Nathan A. Winters.
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