The quest for a perfect chicken tractor, or floor-less, portable field shelter is a hard one. Depending on how many broilers you might raise, which breed, and how much land you’ve got are just the beginning of the requirements.
When we started raising broilers several years ago, we had a particular requirement that dictated the size of the pen. The broilers were just an experiment at first. We were growing raspberries in the front yard in 50′ rows with about 4′ feet of clearance between the plants, so we designed portable pens 42″ wide, 8′ long. We built four pens originally and as demand skyrocketed for the fresh chicken raised on pasture, we built six more two seasons later and moved them into the pasture behind the cows. The next year I toyed with a larger pen, this time 66″ wide, 8′ long, with a custom dolly to move the pen around. At this point, we were raising a lot of broilers each year, and moving 11 different pens for the number of birds we were able to raise was getting crazy!
So, nothing gets you going like necessity, right? The motivation for new pens came after losing a number of birds due to heat exhaustion in the 105 degree summer heat three years ago. The 24″ high portable pens that were only 42″ wide trapped too much heat in for the birds to handle. Immediately after that broiler season was over, we sold our 11 chicken tractors (with warnings about our problem) and set out to build new ones, needing them done by April 1st! We drew and we discussed and we drew and we discussed pros and cons time and time again. Our parameters were several:
We needed a pen that could shield the birds from the extreme heat, but could still protect the birds from cold in early April and late October. We also needed a much larger pen to consolidate and simplify our labor in the field. The only way to get the heat out began to dictate a higher and more complicated roof system. Then, the higher roof meant we could enter the pen to feed and water the birds rather than reach into the pen. This meant the pen got heavier and heavier, the usual death-knell to “new” chicken tractor designs. We didn’t like the idea of PCV because of the brittle issue over time. Galvanized conduit is lightweight, strong and cheap, but connectors are expensive and my dad & I are carpenters, not metal workers… I won’t continue to bore you with the endless ideas we tried, on paper, in actual prototypes, etc., but after working very hard to simplify, simplify, simplify, here’s the result!
There are two key features that make moving this big pen feasible. One are the large wheels. They cost a bit up front at nearly $50 dollars apiece, but I put the shaft onto each wheel and simply have a hole to seat the ‘axle’ on each tractor. The other feature is that I’ve learned to push these pens, as you’ll see in the video, rather than pull them. There are two problems with pulling portable pens: one, it’s easier to run over the chickens pulling than pushing. You can’t see the back wall of the tractor, and chickens don’t always move when they should! Second, pulling is more difficult (especially pulling and lifting) than simply pushing something at chest height.
The other design breakthrough is the carefully built truss. I can stand on the middle of the 12′ span and there’s very little deflection! But, the pens still move easily. We used 1″ welded wire on the pen as opposed to traditional chicken wire and this adds some structural strength as well as more protection against predators. A lot of people want “free-range” chicken and don’t understand how many animals think chicken is as delicious as we do! The pen is more for protecting the birds rather than limiting their access to the pasture. We solve the fresh pasture problem by moving these pens to fresh grass twice a day for 7-8 weeks (the first 2-3 weeks they are raised in a warm, protected brooder).
Rather than give you a written description of how I move this pen, which is much easier than it looks, Tina took a little video footage of me and Willie moving the last batch of Freedom Rangers last year. So check ’em out!
The waterer is a 4″ PCV pipe used as a reservoir, which is connected to a 1 1/2″ PVC pipe with nipple type drinkers for the chickens. We hung trough feeders, which allows me to just walk up to the pens, put on the wheels and move them, rather than have to pick up feeders, them move, then replace the feeders. Also, one feature that might not be apparent from the video is that I can move the pens sideways as well. The wheel blocks accommodate the axles in a total of 3 height positions to move forward, and 2 height positions to move sideways. This allows me to checkerboard around obstacles, and the pens can also move ‘backward’ the same as ‘forward’, so getting to the end of a field and heading the other way is simple. All in all we’ve used these tractors for two seasons and we love them! The birds appreciate the coolness of the design, I like the ease of moving them, and sometimes I just walk in, sit on a bucket, and watch the chickens enjoy the fresh air and sunshine!