Chicken Tractor…pasture renovation and bug control

06-17-10 Chicken Tractor 001As part of our ever evolving homestead “system”, we try to approach things in tune with nature’s cycles and that includes how we care for our pastures and create tilth.  Tilth is essentially a healthy soil eco-system that enjoys the benefit of bio-diversity among the flora and the fauna that occupy it.  Out here in the lower Cascade Mountains, farms are fairly uncommon sights as most of that tilth has been washed out of the mountains and down to the lowlands where agriculture is generally found.  While that means the mountains are great for mining and gravel, and known for having really good drainage, it also means that soils are fairly depleted and run towards acidic.  So in order to cultivate a mountain meadow with a variety of grasses and forbs, and keeping it from returning to an evergreen forest, we have to manage nature’s cycles.  This includes having some grazers on hand who can forage and keep the grasses cut so that brush, like salmonberry and blackberry, don’t overtake it.  The alpacas and llamas tend to do a great job at that.  They also leave behind a highly nutritious soil supplement in the form of their manure. However, with a herd of grazers alone, we are still challenged with the results: poop piles attracts biting fly populations and other insects, the poop needs to be spread, and the herd is still selective in their eating habits (moss and old thatched grass gets passed by for more delectable items.)

05-20-11 Baby Chicks and turkeys (3)Thus enters the chicken tractor. Like a tractor which harrows a field, spreads manure, tills soils, a chicken tractor performs the same functions, albeit on a different timescale than the gas powered wonders of the modern age.  For this year’s run, which starts in May and ends between September and December, we are running twenty Rock Cornish Cross poultry meat birds and four turkeys (including a bronze).  We’ll start harvesting the poultry in September and butcher 3-4 per week leaving the turkeys to finish out in time for Thanksgiving and later ground turkey meat for the freezer.  While we are thankful for meat provided from free-ranging chickens, their primary purpose is really to help renovate the pastures.

05-31-11 Chicken Tractor 004Like most chicken endeavors, our chicken tractor is made from salvaged and recycled materials, some of which was leftover from the construction of our house.  A few carport metal tubes serve as skids and the bottom frame, and PVC pipe creates the hoop structure.  Fastened to the PVC are some leftover fence pieces and chicken wire. The two ends of the chicken tractor are leftover cedar plywood sheets with a door cut into one end. Covering about two-thirds of the entire structure is some white plastic tarp wrap that originally wrapped the wood delivered during the construction of the house.  Partly covering the tractor means there is always a shady and sunny area and the portion towards the front of the tractor which is covered helps keep the food dry during any rain.

05-31-11 Chicken Tractor 012For the first few weeks of the chicken tractor, when the baby chicks are introduced, we add another tarp to fully cover the open portion of the tractor and prevent drafts while we brood the baby chicks.  We also add a heat lamp to help them remain warm. The heat lamp limits the tractor to an area within 100’ of the barn where the electricity comes from, but that only lasts until the chicks are fully feathered out and can keep themselves warm.  They also are offered free-choice chick starter feed which they can have as much as they can manage to eat.  Once the heat lamp is removed and brooding is complete, however, we’ll begin to wean them from the commercially manufactured feed and let them forage freely in the pasture for bugs, grasses, and clovers.  We’ll only use a small portion of commercial feed at the end of the day when it’s time for them to go back into the chicken tractor for the night.  This approach saves quite a bit on the feed bill and allows for some of the best tasting chicken meat that is free-range and grass-fed with minimal additional feed.

05-31-11 Chicken Tractor 009If you try this approach for your own chicken tractor it’s important to have a well-fenced in pasture space for the birds to roam which offers enough for them to eat without over-grazing the grass down to dirt.  It’s time to move the flock to a new pasture when you notice the grass getting too short from the chickens eating it. As part of our strategy, we first let the herd of llamas and alpacas graze, followed by the slower moving chicken tractor to “clean up” after them.  The chicken tractor can stay in one of our small pasture areas for 3-8 weeks depending upon how much I choose to allow them to impact the area.

05-31-11 Chicken Tractor 006Since I do let the birds out of the tractor during the day, I wait until I move them to another pasture to perform the remaining human-based cultivation tasks.  That generally includes spreading out some more straw and raking any remaining llama poop out and adding grass and clover seed.  The pasture is then set for the season.  A heavily renovated pasture may have the llamas and alpacas mob-grazing it for week or two and the chicken tractor working it over for another 6 weeks. After that, I’m guaranteed a lusher, more sustainable pasture for next season.  If a pasture only needs a light renovation, because most of the grasses and clovers are established, I may leave the chicken tractor in pasture for a shorter duration and then return the herd back to it later in the season for another grazing.  I can also choose to limit the birds foraging for a day by keeping them within the tractor over a portion of a ground, say with lots of moss, until they’ve really dug it all up and then move them to another spot.  If I do this the chicken tractor is moving on a daily basis to assure they have enough to forage, or I’m supplementing with a little more feed until they are done with that spot. Generally, when I’m brooding the baby chicks, the chicken tractor gets located on the mossiest spots I can find since it moves less often than when the birds are more fully grown.

09-14-10 Chickens coop and turkeys 009

By the end of the chicken run season, all the poultry birds have been harvested and dispatched to the freezer.  Our birds are allowed to grow longer than the typical “young chicken” label you see in most store bought chickens.  As a result, we end up with chickens that can produce breasts which weigh 6-8 pounds; very large chicken breasts. The only occupants left to finish out the run will be the turkeys.  So as September winds down and October sees the grasses slowing their growth, the chicken tractor is moved to the front paddocks of the barn where some deep straw bedding is added and the turkeys are given finishing feed, and garden scraps for the reminder of their time.  After the last bird is harvested for meat, come Spring the deep bedding, with rich turkey manure,  will be raked out into the paddock where it will be planted with corn and beans or wheat, grasses, and clovers.  When the herd is pulled off pasture for the season, it’s these garden paddocks that they get for their final foraging before strictly feeding on their winter hay bales.  Once these paddocks go fallow again, they are ready for another garden season the next year allowing the ground to recover.

Be sure to check out the video of the chicken tractor brooding this year’s baby chicks:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xjap5ym-7SE

2012 Run Notes:  We’ve made some minor adjustments in how we run our chicken tractor towards the end of the season.  Using a deep bedding option, with more closed-up time for the turkeys, created more work than was necessary.  Instead, we now finish out the turkeys by continuing them in rotation within a pasture spot. At night they are closed up, and during the day let out to roam the pasture. No more deep bedding of straw and poop to muck out; which was a messy, smelly chore. Also, since the tractor continues it’s rotation, the turkeys still get to graze a bit  and their poop is spread.  No additional straw for bedding is given either.  Sometimes, simple really is better, and learning how to keep an editing eye towards our processes and procedures allows for continuous improvement and optimization.

Read the comments for even more information.

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4 Responses to Chicken Tractor…pasture renovation and bug control

  1. What a great idea!!Not only for sustainable farming but for healthy free range birds as well.Your approach is very similar to Joel Salatin’s,a man whom I admire greatly.Thanks for posting!!

    • David says:

      Thanks for the comment! I know Joel Salatin’s approach, and yes, it is indeed very similar to ours! 🙂 I’ve read his materials and they’ve informed me quite well for how to pasture raise poultry. I also like the book “All Flesh Is Grass”, another must-have for homesteaders!

  2. Do you have plans for your chicken tractors? I’m looking for something that I can pasture layers in but not use electric netting (lost to many animals (goats and ducks) to it).

    • David says:

      No plans to really speak of, but here are some pointers when designing a chicken tractor that I’ve learned (and keep in mind most everything was from salvaged parts):
      – Skids vs. wheels: Don’t over design! My first attempt, Chicken Tractor 1.0 ( or should I say one point uh-oh) was way over designed. I used pressure treated wood for the bottom frame and added two wheels that could pop down to make it “easy” to move. Big mistake! The wood gets wet and when it does it gets heavy, really heavy, making the chore of moving quite difficult. The wheels proved non-sensical on the uneven ground of pasture. Instead I chose to salvage the metal tube frames from carports and create a skid frame using the tubing as a base for the chicken tractor. I attach a rope pull to both ends to grab on to or hook up behind my actual tractor to drag it. Very light, and easy to slid around within the pastures, and easy enough to hook up to my tractor to pull it to a new pasture. My ground and pastures are not flat and have slopes and rises. The tube skids make it easy to slide it. They’ll last at least 3-4 years before you need to replace them from rust and wear and tear.
      -On the outside around the perimeter, I did add a skirt of astro-turf (outside carpeting) to the edges of the bottom frame. This was in case I dragged the tractor over uneven ground, the skirt would float and close up any holes, enough to keep birds in side from the temptation of sneaking out.
      – I have no need for electric netting because the chicken tractor rotates within pasture spaces that are fully fenced. I can open the tractor during the day and let the birds roam without worrying too much about either predators or fencing to keep them contained. (Bald eagles are the exception) I close them up at night.
      -keep it light! On that metal frame base I bolted PVC pipe bent in hoops: two at the end and 3-5 spaced down the length. These serve as a frame to which I atach some leftover fencing, and then added chicken wire over that. Again a bit overkill on the original design as I was thinking I really need to beef up the strength to prevent predators getting through just chicken wire, but this has proven unwarranted. Just chicken wire over the structure would suffice, and the smaller holes of chicken wire vs. fencing, are needed during the brooding phase when baby chicks are in there.
      – The two ends of this mini-hoop structure on skids are made from some cedar plywood, painted and cut into the parabola shape to fit the hoop end. I drill holes around the edges to help wire the wood panels to the frame and end hoops. I also cut a door into one end larger enough for me to step inside if need be. (And the main need to step inside, really has been to hang with the baby chicks during brooding and condition them to the human touch to assure some friendliness) The door also allows me access to place a feeder and waterer inside when I close the birds up. The solid panel ends allow for wind block and shading on sunny days too.
      – I cover portions of the hoop structure with pieces of tarp or vinyl or plastic or whatever material I have that can keep the section towards the front near the door covered over the feeder so it doesn’t get wet, and a larger section covered towards the back so that the birds can be under cover as well. It extends across the entire width from one bottom side over the top down to the other bottom side. I leave about 1-2 feet in the middle exposed to let daylight inside. During brooding however, when I do want the heat to stay in and prevent drafts (and it’s also the time that the tractor doesn’t rotate around too much) I cover the entire tractor with an extra large tarp and secure it with wood blocks on the side to keep it from blowing off.
      -In my original design, I also had added some roost poles across the width and an additional cage area for baby chicks. Again overdesigned. Both are completely unnecessary. My chicken tractor only runs from April to November. I brood the baby chicks with a heat lamp right on the grass with additional straw for some bedding, thus, no smaller section of a cage was needed. I found that quite simply using extra straw placed around the inside edges to block holes prevent any baby escapees from slipping outside. I also found that given my short enough run, roost poles never get used by the young pullets: the meat birds can’t really jump up to them (too fat) and the turkeys don’t bother either. Any young pullets for egg laying are still to young to figure out roosting as a natural mode of repose, and by the time September rolls around the egg-layer pullets are ready for promotion to our chicken coop with the main flock or are sold off to other people’s city coops.
      -So the lesson learned, simple is best! A simple hoop structure on skids covered with chicken wire, with wood panel ends for shade and wind protection and a door to access, covered section with tarp to keep dry the feeder at front and the birds towards the rear main section, works very well.
      – I have a chicken coop at the barn which house all my production layers, the young egg-layer pullets, brooded and raised until 3-4 months in the tractor, get promoted there, so my chicken tractor, the main purpose of which is bug control and pasture renovation, has no nest boxes. If you are designing a tractor to house layers full-time you’ll need to add roost poles and nest boxes (hopefully accessible from outside the tractor somehow). I think of such as “moveable coops” rather than chicken tractors since they need to support more of the layer’s needs than the purpose of “tractoring” a pasture. Thus, they need a more robust design.
      – The size of my chicken tractor is 4′ x 12′. This is plenty for me to raise up to 35 birds easily for the duration of the season. By the end of my “tractoring season” and when the meat birds are bigger, towards August and September, I’m reducing numbers in that tractor. All the meat poultry starts to get harvested for the freezer, leaving turkeys and egg-layer pullets. Some time in September or October, the egg-layers get promoted to the coop, leaving just the turkeys. By that time, the turkeys are large enough that they need most of the space the tractor has to offer. I then position the tractor closer to the barn in a pasture to finish them out until harvest around Thanksgiving (last year our ‘dressed-out’ turkeys weighed 29 lb hen, 41 lb and 51 lb Toms).

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