If you’re looking for a way to give your flock an easy and nutritious diet, then the chicken tractors are just what we’ve been waiting for!
These lightweight trailers can be moved around every day or every few days so that they always have fresh pasture to feed upon.
Not only that, but chicken tractors make it much easier for chickens to continue to live their free-range lifestyle without you having to worry about predators, manure build-up, and other issues.
For many homesteaders, the chicken tractor is the perfect solution – especially if you have limited space on your farm, but still want your chickens to be able to receive all the benefits of free-ranging.
Using chicken tractors doesn’t have to be overwhelming. In this comprehensive chicken tractors 101 guide, we’ll tell you everything you need to know!
Table of Contents:
A chicken tractor is a portable chicken coop that is meant to provide your chickens with protection from the weather, sun, and of course, from predators.
It consists of a simple frame (often an A-frame or box-style design) with an open floor.
The open floor here is key, since it allows chickens to free-range, eating bugs, grass, and rocks, while also spreading their manure and tilling up the soil.
As portable coops, chicken tractors are meant to control where the chickens are able to roam. They won’t totally destroy the land like they might if they were confined to a regular coop and run.
Chicken tractors can be used both for meat and laying chickens.
There are a few key features that all chicken tractors must have.
The whole point of a chicken tractor is that it is meant to be moved.
It should be on wheels or skids (or able to be moved with a dolly) so that it can be transported to various locations, either by hand or with a vehicle like an ATV, truck, or tractor.
Chicken tractors vary in size depending on how many birds are inside. However, they need to be relatively spacious in order to give chickens room to move around and forage. It’s important not to crowd your chickens too much despite the fact that they’ll be moved daily.
As is the case when raising chickens in regular coops, you still need to give them around four square feet of space per bird, at a minimum. Remember that, since chicken tractors also need to be portable, you may need to build multiple chicken tractors if you have a lot of birds.
Another key component of a chicken tractor is that it should not have a floor.
This lets chickens get access to grass and bugs while, of course, also being able to scratch and peck and deposit their manure.
Again, chicken tractors must provide some sort of predator protection as well as protection from the elements.
Most people don’t use chicken tractors in the winter due to the difficulties of moving them in the snow.
However, they should provide protection from heavy rain and wind as well as predators like coyotes and foxes.
Chicken tractors should be durable.
Unless you want to spend a lot of time repairing and amending your chicken tractors each year, pick a design and materials that are sturdy and high-quality.
Finally, a chicken tractor should be lightweight. Most people build theirs out of wood with metal roofing, so it’s important to choose a lightweight type of wood.
You can also build a chicken tractor out of less durable materials like tarp and PVC but these may require more maintenance each year.
Although there are many different types and styles of chicken tractors out there – you can make your own.
There are unique, repurposed chicken tractors out there made out of old cars or salvaged school buses…
You can also buy a prefab one (Williams-Sonoma actually sells one that costs several thousands of dollars).
Whatever the case may be – and whatever the size of your chicken tractor might be – they all have a few key components.
The frame of your chicken tractor is undoubtedly the most important part.
Most chicken runs and nesting areas are built around a single wooden frame that is either rectangular or triangular in shape. Of course, PVC or another lightweight material will work, too.
The goal of the frame is to give you a structure to wrap your chicken wire around.
The base usually consists of a couple of beams that serve as skis, letting you slide the chicken tractor easily across the grass.
Depending on how you plan on toting your chicken tractor around, you can attach either a heavy-duty rope, chain, or cable to the front end.
Some people even attach long handles, but this only works well if your chicken tractor is small and you can move it like a wheelbarrow.
On top of the frame, there will be a roof. Some people use wood but I don’t recommend this because it’s so heavy. A better option is tin, since they’re sturdy yet also lightweight.
Tin or aluminum roofing panels can also be used as cladding for the sides – I don’t recommend fully enclosing the tractor but giving coverage on a few sides to ensure adequate protection for your birds.
The majority of the chicken tractor within the frame will actually be a run.
The run is usually covered with wire mesh or another predator-proof covering on all sides but the bottom (again – the bottom is open to make sure your chickens have room to scratch and forage).
This should be spacious, providing room not only for your chickens but also for feeders and waterers. Plan for at least four to five square feet per bird.
To help save space while still giving your chickens everything they need, you can always elevate the nesting structure above the chicken run so the birds can forage beneath it.
This also produces a nicely shaded area, something that is beneficial in hot weather, or to provide protection from heavy rain.
Don’t forget that your run also needs some sort of access point so you can get in to collect eggs (unless you provide an access point directly through the nesting boxes).
A chicken tractor also needs to have some sort of wheel or skid design to make it easier to move. This might not be necessary on a smaller chicken tractor, but for a larger one, wheels are going to be essential.
Depending on the size, you can use everything from lawn mower wheels to wheelbarrow tires to tires that you might use on a tractor or trailer.
Some people mount wheels on all four corners but I don’t recommend this. This will cause the frame to be lifted fully off the ground, allowing small chickens out and predators in.
However, you also need to make sure there is some clearance space when you lift the tractor up to tow it, or it will get caught on rocks and sod on the ground.
That’s why using a dolly works well for us. The chicken tractor sits tight to the ground and we can use the dolly to pick up the tractor and move it around when we’re ready.
An alternative to this is to just use two wheels that are mounted at the heaviest end of the frame (if you have nesting boxes on your chicken tractor, it will be the end with the nesting boxes attached).
If you plan on raising egg-laying chickens in your chicken tractor, you need to have a roost and nesting boxes.
Meat chickens can benefit from a roost too, but this isn’t necessary since you won’t be raising them long enough for roosting to be an issue. Egg layers, however, live for multiple years, and you don’t want them to get used to roosting on the ground or in the nesting boxes, as this can issue later on down the road.
Add a few nesting boxes and roosts to transform your chicken tractor into one that’s suitable for egg layers. Note that this will add some weight to your contraption, but it’s worth it in the long run.
The nesting area needs to be watertight and predator-proof. You’ll also need a way to access the nesting area from the outside.
Either a walk-through door or a simple hatch should work. That way, your chickens can easily get inside to lay their eggs and you can easily get in to grab the eggs.
Since chicken tractors tend to be more well-lit than regular chicken coops, you may find that you have some issues with your girls not wanting to lay in them because they aren’t private enough.
A simple solution is to add a few curtains in front of the nesting boxes to make them a bit darker.
You will also need to add bedding to the nesting boxes. These should have floors so that it’s easier for you to add and replace bedding as needed.
In some cases, the nesting boxes are also elevated off the floor (this might prevent your chickens from trying to sleep in the nesting boxes, too).
Remember, you’ll need at least one 12×12 inch nesting box for every four birds. If you provide an additional roosting area, plan on at least 8 inches of roosting space per bird.
Adding shade features isn’t necessary if your chicken tractor has elements that are elevated, producing their own shade within the tractor.
However, if your chicken tractor has a simpler design, you may want to build a roof over some of the un or strap some tarps or shade cloth over the area (the latter will help keep the weight of the chicken tractor down).
Our chicken tractor has only one entry point – a drop-top door that we can lift to get food and water into the tractor (nothing for eggs, since our tractors are for meat birds only).
This door is comparatively heavy in relation to the rest of the chicken tractor so it’s not possible for raccoons or other nimble-fingered predators to get inside. There’s also a latch.
Depending on the design you choose, you’ll need to double and triple check your latches, locks, and entry points to make sure predators can’t get inside.
If you have any windows, make sure you cover them with wire mesh or hardware cloth, not chicken wire.
Chicken tractors can be moved by hand, pulling them along the grass. Some may be so lightweight that they don’t even require skids or wheels.
However, most people do attach wheels or skids to their chicken tractors to make sure the tractor doesn’t get caught on rough patches on the ground. This also makes it easier to move, either by hand or with a tractor or ATV.
Knot some rope through holes that you cut out of the skids – this way, you can tote the chicken tractor by hand.
What’s important to remember when you’re designing your chicken tractor is that there are countless styles and plans available online.
No matter which kind of plan you choose, make sure it’s a design that works well for how you plan on (and are able to) move it.
If you don’t have an ATV or tractor to move your mobile coop, you should stick with a smaller design that’s lighter weight.
Of course, you can always move your chicken tractor with a dolly, too, which is what we do on my farm.
The whole point of a chicken tractor is that it is meant to be moved often – unlike a chicken coop, which is seldom (if ever) moved.
How often you should move the tractor will depend on a variety of factors. How many birds do you have? What kinds of chickens are they? How big is your chicken tractor? What are your goals for the land beneath the chicken tractor?
When you move your tractor to a fresh patch of land, the grass beneath will be able to regrow and recover, which can prevent bald patches.
If you don’t really care about those bare patches, you can probably get away with moving the chicken tractors just once a week.
But be advised – it’s going to stink to high heaven and you might never get that grass back.
Ideally, your chicken tractors should be moved daily or every two to three days. In doing this, there’s no need for bedding and your chickens will stay just about as healthy as can be.
Chicken tractors vary widely in price depending on whether you plan to build one yourself or buy a prefabricated version.
However, the good news is that they are almost always less expensive than regular, freestanding chicken coops that aren’t meant to be moved.
Expect to pay around $300 to $500 for your chicken tractor. Again, if you build your own, you’ll likely pay less money, but you’ll have the labor involved and still have materials to buy – just something to keep in mind.
You can cut down on costs by using reclaimed or recycled materials.
However, keep in mind that the “cheaper” the materials you use, the more often your chicken tractor is going to need some form of maintenance and repair.
Chicken Tractor Tips
Here are a few more tips for how you can make chicken tractors work on your property.
The Internet is packed to the brim with all kinds of different chicken tractor designs and styles.
You can also design your own, but it’s a good idea to look at other plans if you can. They may provide you with inspiration or see where there might be gaps existing in your own design plan.
That’s what we did. We looked at the Joel Salatin-style chicken tractors (as well as many other styles) and then created a box-style chicken tractor that we move with a dolly based on those designs.
I’d say it’s our own design, but it has definitely been influenced by many other chicken tractors.
Just because you’re using a plan, however, don’t assume that it has to be cookie-cutter! Have some fun with it and don’t be afraid to get creative.
I get on my husband’s case sometimes because he leaves piles of what I call junk (he calls treasure) around the property.
He’s always positive that he’s going to use it all one day. For the most part, he usually does.
These “treasure piles,” as he calls them, actually came in super handy when it was time to build our chicken tractors.
He used all kinds of recycled materials, like the cladding and even some of the mesh wire for the sides, from these piles. You can even repurpose things like old bicycle wheels and tires for your chicken tractors!
Even pallets can come in handy. I personally don’t love working with pallets, since tearing them apart and getting all the nails out can be a pain. However, I know lots of people that have made this design work.
Whatever you use, just make sure it’s durable and can handle the weight and constant pressure from the elements. You don’t want to be stuck with rebuilding your chicken tractor in a matter of weeks.
A relatively common misconception that people have about chicken tractors is that since your chickens will be constantly free-ranging, you don’t need to provide them with any food.
That’s not the case – your chickens still need to be provided with a grain ration in order to help fill in any gaps that may exist in their diets.
This doesn’t need to be anything expensive or overly complicated. After all, your chickens can get most of their nutrients from free-ranging.
However, especially if the quality of land that your chickens are going to be on isn’t the best or if you have high stocking densities in your tractors, a good quality feed is essential (especially for meat chickens!).
Use a sturdy feed container that won’t get easily knocked over and also add a few watering buckets.
If you use nipple waterers, make sure you have at least one for every two chickens. Fill with fresh, clean water daily!
For a heavier chicken tractor, this isn’t necessary. But if you’re using a lightweight chicken tractor, make sure that it’s somehow anchored so the wind (or worse, predators) don’t flip it around.
One of the biggest benefits of using a chicken tractor is that it’s portable – obviously. So why not use your chickens to do your garden chores for you?
You can use them to weed around beds, to fertilize patches of the garden, and to till the land in preparation for planting.
They can also help with pest control!
Plus, since the manure will be spread around over such a large area, you don’t usually have to worry about the nitrogen burning your plants.
If you’re looking for a new way to get more out of your backyard chickens, consider using a chicken tractor.
They provide an easy way to move your birds around your property so that they can enjoy fresh grass and bugs in different spots, giving them access to the nutrients they need to lay healthy eggs.
Of course, chicken tractors also offer benefits to you, too…
The manure load is spread around over a greater area, meaning there’s less “stink” to contend with (a huge benefit, especially if you’re raising meat birds who produce far more poop than other kinds of birds!), more fertilizing action, and virtually no cleaning required.
As you can see, I’m a big fan of everything the humble chicken tractor has to offer.
By following these tips, you can create or improve your own chicken tractor design and make sure your feathered friends are living their best lives!
Rebekah is a high-school English teacher n New York, where she lives on a 22 acre homestead. She raises and grows chickens, bees, and veggies such as zucchini (among other things).