A “chicken tractor” is a portable enclosure that allows backyard chickens to be rotated across a pasture in a controlled pattern. It also helps protect your flock from predators and provides shelter from severe weather.
A viable chicken tractor must be durable, lightweight, animal friendly and inexpensive. Finding a way to balance all of these qualities to fit your needs is the key to building a chicken tractor that will work for you. Many successful poultry farmers have adopted various styles of chicken tractors that incorporate these concepts and allow them to efficiently raise lots of healthy, happy birds.
The first chicken tractor I built was framed with 2-by-4s and was very roomy and durable. It also was incredibly heavy, and moving it regularly was a Herculean chore.
We next tried tent-type shelters framed with metal rebar and covered with tarps. They were light and inexpensive. They did a superb job of keeping the chickens in and the predators out, right up until we had a big thunderstorm. Have you ever tried to catch 200 wet and wild chickens cavorting around a 10-acre pasture? Not fun. If you anchor these down, they might endure high winds better, but then you’ll have to remove the anchors with each move.
Our perfect chicken tractor
I finally found the perfect chicken tractor while visiting Shankstead Eco-Farm in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. The owner, Edwin Shank, was building a batch when I visited his farm, and I was impressed by the simplicity of the structures and how well they worked.
When I got back to Wisconsin, we immediately built one and have since added a few more. We modified Edwin’s original design slightly to better fit our needs. While the chicken tractor plans that follow will give you an excellent place to start, I encourage you to tweak them until you find exactly what works best for your situation.
The tractor we built will comfortably house 50 to 75 broilers if it is moved regularly. It is 8-by-16-feet in area and is constructed out of lumber and lightweight 3/4-inch galvanized steel conduit. The frame and chicken wire cost around $140; you can decide what kind of cover you want to use. We have a source for used billboard signs, which we have found to work very well as “tractor tarps.” They are durable, and this is a neat way to recycle them. They are black on one side, and if you turn them with the graphics to the inside, the chickens can spend time becoming more familiar with the ways of the world. (Just kidding!) Ours spent hours last summer staring at Andre Agassi, and they all think Wimbledon is a wonderful venue for tennis … they definitely prefer grass courts to clay.
Anyways, if you’re planning on raising broilers, this design also can double as a cold frame. Just trade out the opaque summer cover for some clear plastic, and you have an ideal, portable cold frame for winter greens or early spring produce. Our tractors are about 6 feet high at the peak, so we can easily work the crops growing inside.
Driving your ‘tractor’
Generally we find that we can make one pass per month over a given piece of ground. If we move the tractors three times per day (we find this really helps with keeping large numbers of birds clean and mobile), it will take about a quarter acre per tractor or 300 broilers per acre. If you are doing multiple batches per year, you may need other pastures to avoid excessively fertilizing the ground.
Chicken tractors give you a great way to protect your flock while still allowing them to range on pasture. Hopefully this design will get you started growing your own feathered friends in an ethical, environmentally friendly, and enjoyable way.
Chicken tractor plans: tools & materials
- 10 ea. 10-foot 3/4-inch-diameter galvanized conduit
- 1 ea. 10-foot 1-inch-diameter galvanized conduit
- 3 ea. 16-foot 2-by-6-inch boards (or two 16-footers and two 8-footers)
- 2 ea. 16-foot 2-by-4-inch boards
- 6 ea. 8-foot 2-by-4-inch boards
- 50 ea. 3/4-inch self-tapping screws
- 5 ea. 1 1/2-inch self-tapping screws
- 50 ea. 2 1/4-inch deck screws
- 2 hinges
- 1 latch
- 1 ea. 50-foot-by-3-foot roll of poultry wire (broiler version, buy three rolls for full enclosure)
- Fence staples
- 1 roll of 12-gauge galvanized steel or aluminum wire
- Pipe bender
- Hack saw or electric chop saw
- Wood saw
- Drill with 1/8-inch drill bit and screwdriver bits
- Tape measure
How to build a chicken tractor
Cutting it down to size
- Start by bending five of the 3/4-inch conduit pieces in the middle at a 90-degree angle. These will form the ‘peak’ of the tractor.
- Cut 10 36-inch lengths of conduit out of four of the remaining 3/4-inch-diameter pieces. (The remainder of the fourth piece will be part of the center purlin.) Make a 22-degree bend centered on the 24-inch mark of each piece. These will form the uprights along each side, going 2 feet up from the base and bending inward to connect to the ‘peak’ sections.
- Cut the 1-inch-diameter conduit into 11 10-inch sleeves. These will connect the ‘uprights’ to the ‘peak’ pieces.
- If using three 16-foot 2-by-6 boards, cut one 16-foot 2-by-6 into two 8-foot lengths. It might be cheaper to purchase two 8-footers to start — shorter lumber is often cheaper per foot.
Putting it all together
- Build the 8-by-16-foot base by screwing the 2-by-6 boards together using deck screws. Lap the 16-foot side-boards over the ends of the 8-foot end-boards.
- Assemble each rafter by taking one ‘peak’ piece and attaching an ‘upright’ section to each end. Connect them by sliding one of the 1-inch-diameter sleeves over the ends of both and securing with four 3/4-inch self-tapping screws. Each assembled rafter should rise 2-feet vertically before bending toward the peak.
- Drill two holes in the bottom 6 inches of each assembled rafter, and attach to the wooden frame on 4-foot centers using the deck screws.
- Place the 16-foot 2-by-4 boards (the side purlins) lengthwise just above the bend and attach from the inside with deck screws. If you have trouble getting deck screws through the conduit, try drilling pilot holes.
- Connect the remaining pieces of 3/4-inch conduit with a 1-inch-diameter sleeve to make a 16-foot-long rod (the center purlin). Attach inside the peak using 1 1/2-inch self-tapping screws.
- Cut a 2-by-4 to fit between each side purlin across the back. You’ll need a 45-degree cut on each end. Attach to the side purlins with deck screws.
- Frame in the doorway using 2-by-4s. We found that attaching the frame to the rafter and base at the corners works well. Running a 2-by-4 from each side purlin to help brace the frame adds stability. Attach with deck screws, drill pilot holes if necessary. Build a door to fit, and attach hinges and latch as desired.
- If raising broilers, run poultry wire horizontally between the base and side purlins, forming a barrier all the way around. If raising hens (or other potential escapees), the best method we’ve found is to run wire from one base, over the top, and down to the other base. Staple each run well to the base and side purlins, and overlap slightly to deter predators. On the front and back, close all the gaps, tying the poultry wire to the conduit with suitable wire where necessary.
- f using a cover, attach using staples, screws, or rope and grommets (if using a tarp). It is important to only attach the cover to the side purlin and not the base. This will allow air to move through and will make the tractor more stable in a big windstorm.
- You also can attach wheels to the tractor, if you want, to make moving easier. We recycled some wheels from a push lawnmower that work well. Use a length of threaded half-inch rod with some washers to secure it to the frame, and you’ll be good to go.
Daniel Olson enjoys grazing education and research, and runs a grass-based farm, Norsk Farm.