Chicken Tractors on the Move!
Here is the 2009 version of the Circle M chicken tractor design. Aren’t these pretty? For better or worse, one of our main criteria for shelters is that they have to not only function efficiently, they also have to look good and blend in with the old structures that are here on the farm. We’ve built new chicken housing for each of the five years we’ve been here, and each time we’ve learned from our mistakes. I think we’ve succeeded with the aesthetics this time, and we’ll soon see if they work the way we hope they will…
Most chicken tractors are made from PVC and plastic sheeting, but we just couldn’t bear to have plastic structures clogging up our picturesque pastures! These wood versions are heavier, so we angled the back edges to act like sled runners and we’ve got chains attached to the front so two people can pull it to a new place. At least we know these won’t blow away in heavy winds.
The idea of a chicken tractor, as espoused by Joel Salatin in “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” by Michael Pollan, is that you are able to move chickens in an organized fashion across a pasture by actually transporting their house every day or two. This way, the chickens get the highest quality feed possible by eating in a new spot every day. An extra benefit is that you can move them across a pasture after your cows or horses have been there, allowing the chickens to scratch the larger animal’s manure into the soil, while also eating any parasite eggs that have passed in the manure, thus leaving the pasture clean and fertilized for the next round of ruminants who come foraging through.
It’s a brilliant idea, but it sounds a lot easier than it looks. After reading various books and visiting copious websites, we’ve tried attaching lawn mower wheels, various heavy duty handles and various unwieldy fences to various awkwardly shaped huts. Generally, we’ve found the back edges drag too much when the front is lifted, and we’ve had a hard time getting the handles where they work for both someone my height and for my taller husband. I do think I will eventually train the horses to pull the tractors for us – but training the horses to pull is a project for another year.
Our laying hens still just roam all over the farm – and lay eggs in their house, the barn, the sheep pens and the hedgerows! These tractors are just housing the heritage White Rock meat chickens that we wanted to keep separate, so we didn’t have to grab them all out from the rest of the flock come butchering time. Keeping them on fresh grass everyday will insure their meat has the highest possible amount of Omega 3s and the lowest amount of fat and cholesterol. They also have unlimited access to organic grains, and we didn’t want our hens to eat that much. (The hens get organic grain, too, but in a limited amount, since we’re not trying to plump them up.)
The meat chickens certainly are growing at a shocking rate! Here they are, just 20 days since the last post:
These type of chickens are actually slow-growing, relative to commercial chickens and even the Cornish Cross variety most commonly raised on little farms like ours. We opted for this old-fashioned variety because we like how a slightly older chicken develops more flavor by butchering time, and how they enjoy foraging for grass and bugs as much as eating grain. The Cornish Cross varieties are bred to simply sit by the feeder and eat, and while it means they are ready to butcher in just 8 weeks, it also means that they get very little grass and very little flavor in their meat. Ours won’t be ready until mid-summer, and they will taste fabulous!
Thankfully, our discarded chicken tractor designs always serve to house something else we’ve acquired. This spring, two baby runner ducks are living in the too-hard-to-move-everyday chicken tractor we built two years ago.