Chicken tractors (or chicken arks) are essentially mobile chicken coops, without floors (sometimes featuring wheels) that use the inherent characteristics of the chicken to benefit all concerned. By inherent characteristics, I mean the noble chicken's nearly constant desire to eat, scratch, poop and eat some more.
So, say you have a piece of land that's overrun by weeds, or that's been harvested and you want to clear it before planting the next crop. In comes the chicken in its moving chicken home (equipped with nesting boxes and roosts where the hens lay their eggs and sleep).
Said chicken first eats all the groundcover, seeds and weeds. It scratches up the soil looking for insects (aha now we're taking care of all the pests and at the same time turning up the soil) and what does the chicken do? It poops.
This wonderful process results in - no pests, great chicken manure which fertilises the soil, all the while feeding the chicken its perfect diet.
Throwing in some hay, straw, or dried grass (your dry mulch materials) provides some additional carbon to the soil, keeps it dry inside so the chicken doesn't sink in its own poop, and starts that fantastic composting process.
You can also chuck in your kitchen scraps - giving those lucky chickens all the nutrients they need and getting rid of your organic waste.
Now this is the permaculture way - sitting back and letting nature do the work.
Pros and Cons:
Though mobile chicken homes have been called the next best thing to free-range, there are some cons to using a chicken tractor.
My first permaculture teacher, Hazel Mugford, rescues battery chickens (and nobody would argue that to a battery chicken a tractor is like a palace). Once they’ve adapted to their new environment, the chickens get a three-week stint in the tractors, followed by a three-week ‘rest’ in the large henhouse.
According to Hazel, chickens enjoy smaller spaces where they can feel safe. Even though they only have partial freedom, they’re able to run around and, because they’re moved frequently, they never get bored and enjoy the frequent interaction.
And while they don’t get complete free range of the yard, the chickens are protected from the greedy jaws of predators, a definite plus!
Another important point to mention is that building a tractor can be incredibly cost-effective - you can make use of scrap such as wooden crates and leftover lumber and fencing. Alternatively you can get one custom-made to suit your specifications, or buy a commercial variety.
However, some peoplebelieve that tractors interfere with a chicken’s natural desire to roam. Emma Granville at Guba Permaculture Farm in Swazilandlets her chickens scratch, poop and eat freely within certain fenced off vegetable gardens.
Her experience is that chickens, properly managed, can be truly free-range and,because their first instinct is to eat what they need,not destroy everything in sight!
Rotating the chickens frequently means they provide the vital grub and bug clearing, scratching up the soil and fertilising it with their poop, while still getting the thrill of a new environment where they are free to roam and eat what they will.
Toby Hemenway of Gaia’s Garden warns that one should wait until garden plants are mature before letting the chickens into the garden, as poultry will happily eat tender seedlings.
If you allow the birds into the garden in the late afternoon, they won’t be there long enough to do any damage and will naturally return to their coop or tractor at dusk, sparing you the trouble of a lengthy chicken chase.
Of course, the biggest downside of free roaming chicken is the risk of predators. However, a chicken tractor does not entirely mitigate this risk. They need to be lightweight and portable, which means they’re not as strong as permanent coops - and are easier for more persistent predators to break into.
Animals that can dig (such as dogs, skunks, foxes) can also dig their way in - taking advantage of the fact that chicken tractors are usually floor-less. Toby Hemenway of Gaia’s Garden advises laying chicken wire on the ground around the pen and pinning it in place to frustrate digging predators.
Another issue is that chicken tractors are usually open to the elements, and it can get nasty out there! Which is why many people choose to have both a tractor and a henhouse - putting their hard-working chickens to rest in the henhouse at night or alternatively building a closed shelter into the tractor.
If your land is on a contour (slope) you might also have to be more innovative in your design approach. While numerous different commercial designs exist (and the opportunity to get one custom-built) this might raise your costs. You’re also limited in how many chickens you can fit in one tractor (usually six) - and by the size of your garden beds.
Moving the tractor can also be tiresome, which is why many are equipped with wheels.
One innovative guy has two tractors equipped with doors. He merely lines up the doors, opens them and the chickens run across to the other side, which is ripe for the pecking. And the previously occupied chicken tractor can be removed, giving the soil time to recoup before planting.
The Best Alternative to a Chicken Tractor?
Assuming you have a bit of land - the best alternative is the paddock (or paddock shift) method! Here you have four or more fenced areas. Put the chickens in an area and after 7 to 10 days move to the next area. Each area gets at least 28 days of rest until the chickens return.
The more areas you have, they smaller they can be and the less time can be spent in an area. If you find your chickens are consuming more than 30% of the vegetation, you have too many chickens or too small a paddock.
Paddock shift systems often improve the paddock - with feedback being that vegetation increase dramatically. Joel Salatin (American author) calls this system “egg-mobile” and often has the chickens coming in after the cattle in the paddock shift system.
Joel Salatin calls this system the "egg-mobile" and often has the chickens following cattle in this system.
Using chicken tractors for preparing soil
You can use a tractor to build soil with rotation, sheet mulching (also known as lasagne or no-dig garden beds), and deep mulching. The following is paraphrased from Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture, Second Edition by Toby Hemenway.
- Rotation method
In the rotation method, you wheel the pen and chickens to an unused garden bed early in the morning. The birds can stay inside while you move it—they’ll scurry along inside the pen.
Don’t feed them anything else - just let them eat the vegetation doing your weeding, tilling and fertilising all day! The next morning, all you have to do is wheel the tractor down the bed to the next spot and leave a layer of mulch on the first bed. Then, continue rotating your tractor along all the unused beds.
This system requires that some of your garden beds go fallow part of the time so the the chickens can improve the soil. Obviously, having a bigger garden here helps. As the tractor leaves each bed - you can plant a cover crop of rye, buckwheat or vetch, and bring the chickens back for a feast when the cover crop is 4 inches high.
This boosts fertility and soil life - while cutting down on chicken feed bills, and all with very little labour input!
- Sheet mulch (lasagne garden bed or no-dig gardening methods)
To sheet mulch with chickens, leave the tractor in one spot for several days. Each day, add about an inch of mulch and let the chickens work over the mulch and add manure to it.
When the mulch is about four inches deep, move the chickens to a new spot and repeat the process. This way, you (and the chickens) are adding both nutrients and organic matter to the soil. The mulch binds the nitrogen and other nutrients in place while everything composts.
Treat this bed as you would any new sheet-mulched bed and plant it with seedlings in soil pockets (in between the mulch) or seeds in a top layer of potting soil.
- Deep mulch
You can also use a chicken tractor to make a deep-mulch garden bed, useful in gardens too small to move the tractor every day or where the soil is very poor. All you need to do is leave the chicken tractor in one place and add about an inch of mulch each day.
After about five weeks—or the time it takes chicks to mature—you’ll have a thick raised bed to plant in.
Designing your own
There's hundreds of different designs of chicken tractors out there - check out my favourite site The City Chicken with a gallery of chicken tractors for the inspiration to design a veritable palace for your favourite chooks.
Buying a chicken tractor
Don't feel like making your own? There's plenty of commercial models out there
South Africans can check out Lowveld Lumber in Nelspruit.
Or get one designed and delivered to you from Urban Harvest, Cape Town.
McCallum Chicken Tractors service Australia at the moment, but they're bringing their famous chicken tractors to the US soon!
In the meantime, why not check out:
Carolina Coops (services USA and Canada)
And if you want to know everything there is to know about chicken tractors - look into buying this book:
Chicken tractor: the permaculture guide to happy and healthy soil by Andy Lee and Pat Foreman.
This book covers the benefits of using a chicken tractor to improve your soil and get more vegetables, discusses how to schedule rotations, and even covers how to build one.
From what chickens to buy to how to feed them, Chicken Tractor is one of the most useful books you'll ever buy.
Great for beginners starting from scratch, this book covers chicken care at a level that most people don't even think about.
While some readers have criticised this book as being repetitive and sometimes vague - it's still one of the mainstays in the chicken tractor movement and has a veritable fount of information!
Fun facts: Everything to do with Chicken Tractors
- In the UK they are called Chicken Arks, in Australia they are called Chook Tractors (chook is slang for chicken). I’ve also seen them being called Tractor coops!
- You don’t need a farm to have one - they’re perfect for city gardens
- You don’t have to move them frequently - you can just let the manure accumulate and add in your straw, wood chips etc and let a few layers accumulate to be shovelled out and composted.
- Some people move them every 24 hours (obviously not the ‘lazy’ permaculturists)
- Chicken manure has one of the highest nitrogen-phosphorous-potassium rations (NPK) of all the commonly-used animal manures. Considered 'hot' - it will literally burn your plants if applied directly so make sure you compost it first.
- Did you know that if you use straw for bedding in your chicken coop, after a while it can form a substance stronger than steel?
- Chicken manure doesn’t ordinarily smell. But adding water (or rain) really brings out the stench.
- Chickens might not be allowed in your area! Check out the local laws and regulations before building your chicken tractor and investing in some chickens. Some city regulations prohibit you from keeping chickens, so unless you have friendly neighbours who won’t tell the authorities about your new pets, you’d better be sure.
Got some more fun facts about the chicken tractor (or chicken ark)? Please contact us and share!
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