Pastured chickens enjoy fresh, natural nourishment, and the exercise involved in getting it, all while protected from predators and the elements. Afterwards, their high-nitrogen manure is left where needed as their portable coop, or “tractor,” is rolled to greener pastures.
At the heart of successful pasture-based poultry management is a secure, sturdy chicken tractor that stands up to the beating it will take from not only coyotes and coons, but high winds and other weather factors. Not to mention it’s awfully nice if your enclosure can be quickly and easily moved by one person.
If you haven’t pastured broilers before, you’ll be surprised how much grazing they do, given the chance. Twenty 2-week-old chicks will gobble 80 square feet of clover in two days. At 6 weeks, they should be moved twice a day – or maybe even more often – to maximize their intake of fresh greens and prevent waste from piling up.
You’ll have to get feed and water to them, and they go through lots of both toward the end. It’s ideal to get the chicks on grass as early as possible to reinforce their scratching and foraging instincts. I’ve had them in the tractor as early as 5 days old in mild weather. I hang a light in the tractor with a thick straw bed beneath them for their first week or so outside. Also, I use straw bales alongside the tractor to block drafts.
The tractor featured here is the product of several developmental generations, and it makes the original look pretty cumbersome. Earlier models were built around what I had or could easily get. Nowadays, I’ve standardized some features that suit me. That said, there’s always room for modification and improvement. Think of the following instructions as an adjustable recipe rather than a blueprint. Season to taste.
Bike to birdcage
Bicycles are the critical element to this project, and the corners – the raising and lowering mechanism – are what set this chicken tractor apart from others. We’ll mainly focus on the corners and wheel assembly first, and you can fabricate the rest of the movable coop how you like, though I’ll offer my suggestions.
I get bicycles from the dump or from county-wide cleanup events. A cheap bike with 20-inch tires and standard sprocket is ideal. Begin by stripping two bikes of their rear tires, crank set, seat, chain guard and rear brake caliper. Keep the handlebars for later.
Use a cutting torch or angle grinder to remove the kickstand and chain. Next, carefully cut the front of the bike away. The right or sprocket crank must be cut off too. When cooled, grind the rough edges.
Reassemble the crank sets as left and right. Each will have a reversed, “left” pedal.
Fit the sprocket assembly carefully to a 15-7⁄8-inch upright landscape timber. Rotate the sprocket until the pedal is snug against the post’s other side, then make it fast. I drill holes in the sprocket as needed and use whatever I can find to fasten the pedal.
The rear corner timber posts need a slight modification. Shape a block of 5⁄4 composite decking material. Attach length of hose with one-hole conduit clamp, then attach the block. A rope will run from the seat post through the hose, and up the outside to raise and lower the wheels. This is the mechanism for moving the chicken tractor.
For the rest of the assembly, first attach top and bottom side rails to posts as shown. Reassemble the structure and attach the center ridge. I tie it with wire rather than drilling into and weakening the conduit tubing.
Take a few measurements and determine the width of your tractor. It should be around 88 to 92 inches from outer edges of posts. Mine was 91-1⁄2 inches, so I cut four pieces of conduit 6 inches longer, 97-1⁄2 inches, flattened 3 or so inches on each end, bent 2-1⁄2 inches at each end 90 degrees and attached them as shown. A conduit bender comes in extremely handy with this project.
Doing this at both ends pulls the posts true and stiffens the roof peak considerably. Cut a piece to tie the tops of the center posts together and attach it.
I started out making doors from whatever I could find. Nowadays, I use lightweight sign material 24 inches high and 32 inches wide. The following instructions could be modified to fit your materials.
Mark a 30-inch-wide opening in the center of the tractor end. Cut the two upright sides of the door opening 30 inches long. Flatten 3 inches or so on each end. Use channel locks to bend the flattened ends, first around the horizontal conduit, then around the upper, sloping conduit. Vice grips may be helpful, too. Repeat on the other side of the door.
Cut a piece 34 inches long, flatten 3 inches or so on each end, and bend 1 inch on each end until double, to make the top of the door opening, as shown. The assembly will seem sloppy, but the wire shell will hold it all true and secure in the end.
Repeat door assembly on the other end of the tractor.
Cut one piece of conduit in half and mark each piece 6 inches from one end. Bend until bender handle is plumb, or slightly past. Insert into bike handlebars as shown and check fit. Adjust as necessary. Mark vertical plane on conduit and flatten the end to wrap around timber post. Attach as shown.
Put the tires back on the bike frames. These frames have a very low seat post, so I’ll extend it accordingly. The blue, bent piece was cut from the other bicycle handlebar. The extension is 1⁄2-inch EMT.
Enclose the ends and frame the doors next. First, mark the point where the handlebar extensions cross the upper horizontal EMT pipe. Remove the handlebar. Cut a 36-inch-wide piece of 1⁄2-inch-by-1⁄2-inch hardware cloth to length and stand it up to the end of the tractor. Tie it to the upper and lower horizontal EMT every foot or so putting the ties and sharp edges inside. Do not tie to door area yet. Try to eliminate sharp ends by hemming or bending inward.
Use poultry staples to attach wire to wood posts.
Cut two pieces of aluminum soffit J trim, one 24 inches and one 32-1⁄4 inches for the door tracks. I like to pop rivet them together first. Use an awl to punch holes where you intend to tie it to the conduit. Take your time here. Measure. Hold the door up there. Make some marks. Adjust door bends as needed with channel locks.
Tie the bottom track as shown, loosely at first. Tie the lower set of holes on each vertical rail. Check door fit.
Cut excess hardware cloth above the eave, leaving enough flap to gently fold it over. The ends will be very sharp! Cut door opening, leaving adequate flap to wrap the EMT. Use the leftover pieces to finish enclosing the end.
Check door fit periodically as you tie it all up – except for the top or eave. You will tie it together with the roof later. Cut 1-inch holes for handlebar extensions and reattach assembly.
Enclose the other end.
Drape two pieces of 60-inch chicken wire over the top with one-cell overlap. Leave enough extra on the ends to fold a hem at the top strut on each side. The final hardware cloth sides will cover this edge later. Carefully tie the chicken wire and hardware cloth at the ends of the chicken tractor.
Cut a piece of 36-inch hardware cloth 10 feet long, then cut it into two 18-inch strips. Attach it to sides with sharp prickly points down – to further deter varmints.
Old billboard canvas makes a great roof – if you can get it. Whatever you use, the feed must be kept dry, and your birds need a dry place to huddle.
There you have it, a movable, lightweight chicken tractor that should protect your birds from the elements and predators for years to come – this movable bird cage doesn’t have to cost a fortune!
Mike Casey has been known to add a roosting board or two and keep summer layer pullets in this movable chicken tractor, and he’s even covered another in clear plastic to make a portable cold frame in early spring and late fall. It’s a versatile structure with a lot of flexibility.