The Ultimate Backyard Chicken Tractor
In a perfect world, our chickens would be able to free-range all of the time, eating grass, bugs and seeds to their heart’s content. Unfortunately, chickens are rather low on the food chain and prove easy targets for predators. After losing a few of my birds to some foxes, I knew it was time to consider an enclosure for them.
I wanted an easy-to-build, inexpensive portable pen that would keep them safe from predators. It would need a nest box, roost, and a place to hang a feeder while providing them shade and protection from the elements. It would also need easy access in order to feed, water and collect eggs, and be easily movable for one person. I also wanted to be able to break it down for winter storage.
After piecing all of these requirements together, the resulting chicken tractor I constructed is based on a series of six panels and a nest box. The panels are connected with loose pin hinges for quick assembly and disassembly.
• Tape measure
• Wire cutters
• Table saw or Skilsaw
• Radial arm saw, jigsaw, or crosscut hand saw
• Screw gun with Phillips bit
• 6-inch speed square
Binders & Hardware
• Exterior wood glue
• 3/4-inch drywall screws — 1 pound
• 1-inch drywall screws — 1 pound
• 1 1/4-inch drywall screws — 2 pounds
• 2-inch drywall screws — 4
• 3-inch drywall screws — 4
• Exterior paint and primer
• 1 set of 2-inch hinges
• 1 hook and eye latch
• 9 sets of 3-inch loose pin hinges
Gather and cut all wood according to the materials list.
• (J1) 4-by-6-inch piece 1/2-inch plywood — 3
• (J2) 1-by-4-by-6-inch plywood — 3
Make the corner and side assembly jigs. For the corner jig, take two (J2) pieces and hold ends to form a 90-degree angle. Fasten with glue and 1-inch screws. Next, attach two (J1) pieces so plywood extends 1/2 inch beyond bottom edge of the 1-by-4-inch panel (photo top right).
For the side jig, take one (J1) piece and one (J2) piece. Fasten the two pieces together with glue and 1-inch screws so that one edge is flush with the ends and the plywood extends 1/2 inch beyond the opposite edge of the 1-by-4.
• (A) 1-by-4-by-94 1/2-inch side panel top and bottom rails — 4
• (B) 1-by-4-by-29-inch side and end panel stiles — 10
• (C) 1-by-4-by-45-inch end panel top and bottom rails — 4
• (D) 1-by-4-by-38-inch end panel middle rails; roof panel stiles — 6
• (E) 1-by-4-by-12-inch door panel — 2
• (F) 1-by-4-by-46 1/4-inch roof panel rails — 4
• (G) 1-by-4-by-48-inch roof panel overlap — 1
• (H) 36-by-48-inch piece 1/4-inch lauan side panel skins — 2
• (I) 3-by-6-inch piece 1/2-inch plywood door panel gussets — 10
• (J) 7-by-7-inch piece 1/2-inch plywood cut in half diagonally; triangle gussets — 20
• (K) 61/4-by-6 1-4-inch piece 1/2-inch plywood; nest box panel bottom gussets — 2
• (L) 6-by-9 3/8-inch piece 1/2-inch plywood; nest box panel top gussets — 2
• (M) 1/4-by-1 1/2-by-46 1/2-inch side panel strips (from 2-by-4) — 4
• (N) 1/4-by-1 1/2-by-33-inch side panel and door panel strips — 4
• (O) 48-by-48-inch piece 1/4-inch lauan; roof panel skins — 2
• (P) 36-by-48-inch piece 1/4-inch hardware cloth; side panels — 2
• (Q) 36-by-45-inch piece 1/4-inch hardware cloth; door panel — 1
• (R) 9 3/8-by-38-inch piece 3/4-inch plywood; door panel, top filler — 1
• (S) 1/4-by-1 1/2-by-45-inch strips; door panel top and bottom — 2
• (T) 12-by-12-inch piece 3/4-inch plywood; door — 1
Build side panels. Use wood glue and 1-inch screws for all frames unless otherwise noted.
Lay two (A) pieces on the ground, parallel to each other and 30 inches apart. Place one (B) piece at each end, between (A) pieces, forming a rectangle. Using the corner jig, square up one corner of the panel. Position a gusset (J) in the corner. Attach (J) gusset with glue and 1-inch screws. Repeat for the three remaining corners.
Measure 47 1/4 inches from the ends of the top and bottom rails to find center, and place another (B) piece in the middle of the rectangle. Using the side jig, position (J) gusset, then attach it. Repeat for the opposite end.
Flip the frame over so that it rests on the gussets. Position one (H) piece so that one end is flush with the right end of the frame, and the other end rests on the middle (B) with the top and bottom flush with the frame. Check for proper fit, remove the plywood, and apply glue to the frame, stopping 4 inches from the center. Reposition plywood, and screw to the frame with 3/4-inch screws, stopping 4 inches from center. You now have one side panel ready to paint. Repeat for the other side panel.
Build the nest box end panel and door end panel. Using two (C) pieces for the top and bottom, two (B) pieces for the sides, two (L) gussets for the top, and two (K) gussets for the bottom (using the corner jig), make a frame. Add (D) piece to the bottom, just above the (C) bottom rail so that it fits flush with the top of the (K) gussets. Add another (R) piece just below the (C) top rail, again flush with the gusset (photo top of opposite page).
To make the door end panel, use two (C) pieces for the top and bottom rails, two (B) pieces for the sides, and four (I) gussets. Next, place one (D) piece near the bottom of the panel, parallel to the (C) bottom rail, leaving 12 inches between the top of the bottom rail and the bottom of (D) piece.
Use two (I) gussets on either side of (D) piece. Place two (E) pieces between (C) bottom rail and (D) piece, perpendicular to (C). Use one (I) gusset on each end of each (E) piece.
You will have a 12-by-12-inch hole left for the door opening.
Build two roof panels separately. Using two (F) pieces, two (D) pieces, and four (J) gussets, make a frame measuring 46 1/4-by-45 inches. Position one (O) piece on top of panel, leaving a 1/4-inch overhang on all sides. Attach with glue and 3/4-inch screws. Repeat for second roof panel. These panels are held together by (G).
Materials: Nest Box
• (N1) 12-by-12-inch (rear) and 12-by-15-inch (front) pieces 3/4-inch plywood; ends and dividers — 4
• (N2) 12-by-37 3/4-inch 1/4-inch lauan; bottom and back — 2
• (N3) 3-by-37 3/4-inch piece 3/4-inch plywood; top strip — 1
• (N4) 11-by-37 3/4-inch piece 3/4-inch plywood; top panel — 1
• (N5) 3-by-37 3/4-inch piece 1/2-inch plywood; kick plate — 1
• (N6) 1-by-2-by-36 1/4-inch batten — 1
• (N7) 3/5-by-1-by-37 3/4-inch scrap wood; bottom stop block — 1
• (N8) 3/4-by-2 1/2-by-37 3/4-inch scrap wood; cleat — 1
To build the nest box, the 3/4-inch plywood end pieces are 12-by-15 inches in front and 12-by-37 3/4 inches in the rear. Attach the (N2) bottom to the end (N1) pieces. Attach the back (N2) to the end pieces. Position (N6) in inside bottom rear corner and attach back and bottom to it. Attach (N5) to the bottom front. Attach (N8) at the top front, leaving 1 1/2 inches sticking up above the top of the end pieces. Place (N3) across the slanted top so that it touches (N8), and attach. Place (N4) just below (N3) and install hinges. Attach (N7) to the bottom of the nest box 1 1/2 inches from the front edge. Install two (N1) dividers at equal distances from the ends to make three nest boxes. Notch the corners to fit over the batten.
Putting it all together
Paint all pieces with primer. When dry, apply a coat or two of exterior latex paint.
Install hardware cloth. Lay one side panel flat, gussets down, so the wood skin is to your left. Lay hardware cloth (P) over right side of the panel so it is flush with frame edges. Tuck the end of the wire under the edge of (H) on center piece (B), and screw the edge of (H) down with 3/4-inch screws. Place one (M) strip on the top of the panel and another (M) strip on the bottom. Using 1-inch screws, attach strips to the panel, sandwiching the wire between the frame and the strip. Attach one strip (N) to the end of the panel, same as above. Repeat for second side panel (see above).
Lay the door panel flat, gussets down. Lay (Q) hardware cloth on top so it is flush with the edges of the panel. Attach (S) top strip, sandwiching the wire as above. Cut out a 13-by-13-inch square for the door. Attach bottom (S) strip and (N) side strips. Staple door opening to frame (photo Page 72). Attach (T) door to the door frame with 2-inch hinges. Install hook and eye latch.
Materials: Wheel Assembly
• (W1) 6-inch lawn mower wheels — 2
• (W2) 1-by-4-by-24-inch handles — 2
• (W3) 2-by-4-by-31/2-inch stop blocks — 2
• (W4) 1/2-inch nyloc nuts — 4
• (W5) 1/2-inch bolts — 4
• (W6) 1/2-inch washers — 14
• (W7) 5/8-inch nuts for spacers — 2
Attach the wheel assembly. (Editor’s Note: Orientation as shown in the illustration is recommended, although orientation as shown in photos — with handles W2 facing rear — also works. Note photo on Page 72 compared to Page 66.) Place one (W2) flat horizontally. Make a mark 1 inch from the top edge and 2 inches from the left end. This is for the axle. Make a second mark 1 inch from the bottom edge and 3 1/2 inches from the left end. Drill a 1/2-inch hole through the handle at each mark. Place a third mark on the bottom of side panel 36 3/4 inches from the nest box end and 2 1/2 inches from the bottom edge. Drill a 1/2-inch hole at your mark. Flip the handle up on edge so that the axle hole is on top.
Place one washer on a 1/2-inch bolt, and insert bolt through the hole from the back of the handle. Place another washer on the bolt from the front of the handle, followed by a spacer nut. Place the wheel on the axle bolt, another washer, and a nyloc nut. Tighten.
Place a 1/2-inch washer on a bolt. Insert the bolt through the second hole on the handle, this time from the front. Place a washer on the bolt, then a 5/8-inch spacer nut, then another washer. Insert the bolt through the hole in the tractor. Place a washer on the bolt, followed by a nyloc nut and tighten. Flip the handle so that the top of it faces the rear of the tractor. Attach one (W3) stop block at the bottom edge of the tractor. The exact placement will be 21 1/2 inches from the nest box end of the tractor and 21/2 inches from the bottom edge. The block will be at an angle to match that of the handle at the point at which the wheel just touches the ground. Use 2-inch screws and glue. Repeat the above steps for the opposite side of the tractor. This assembly will be a mirror image of the first one.
Assemble the tractor. The end panels must fit inside the side panels, and all gussets should face toward the inside of the tractor. Position door end panel inside the hardware cloth end of side panels. Install the hinges 3 inches from the top and 3 inches from the bottom. Repeat for the remaining corners.
Install the nest box by sliding it in at an angle, top first, followed by the bottom. Level it until the top cleat and the bottom stop block hit the panel.
• (H1) 2-by-4-inch end blocks — 2
• (H2) 1-inch dowel — 1
Install the handle on the door panel at a height that is comfortable for whomever will be moving the tractor. Pre-drill two 3/4-by-1/2-inch screw holes in each block, and a 1-inch hole, centered in the side of each block, for the dowel. Place the end of one (H1) block against the panel in the desired position, then screw it from the inside using two 3-inch screws. Slide the (H2) dowel into the holes in both blocks. Place the end of the second (H1) block in position and screw from the inside with two 3-inch screws (photo top right on Page 69).
Place the roof panels side by side on top of the tractor. The frames of the panels should fit inside the tractor so that the roof panels fit tightly against the sides. Reinforce two panels together with piece (G) on top of roof panels.
Install the roosts. Cut two 46 1/2-inch branches (between 2- and 4-inch diameter). Install branches in desired locations using one 2-inch screw and two washers on each end (photo on Page 69).
If you do not have access to branches, 2-by-2-inch lumber will also work. Cut one 44-inch branch and install it just below the roof in the center of the tractor to hang the feeder from.
Your chicken tractor is now ready to roll! It should accommodate six chickens, or 10 Bantams. Keep them on fresh ground for best results.
Elizabeth Williams lives on a farm in Minnesota with her husband and daughter.
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