Cindy Shapton gardens with the help of Rosie, her canine helper who keeps a close eye on Banjo, Curly and Shirley as they till their little hearts out. In her spare time, Cindy writes and speaks as The Cracked Pot Gardener. Contact her at www.cindyshapton.com.

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Rule the Roost
by Cindy Shapton    

What has wings, a manual transmission and runs on weeds and bugs? If you answered chicken tractor, you might be a gardener who owns chickens or one familiar with permaculture methods.  

When I first learned of chicken tractors, I thought, now there is an idea I can get behind … literally. I couldn’t wait to give it a go. My son got me my first tractor equipped with two bantam chickens we named Taco and Cornbread. I couldn’t wait to start it up and watch it work.  

SO, WHAT IS A CHICKEN TRACTOR?
A chicken tractor is basically a bottomless, portable coop or cage (sometimes with wheels) that can be easily moved around the yard or garden on a regular basis. This allows the chickens to work the ground – digging up weeds, eating bugs and fertilizing as they go.  

WHAT IS PERMACULTURE?
Permaculture is based on the idea that everything is connected and all works best when we get out of the way and let things work together naturally. It is how our grandparents and great-grandparents farmed.  As the chickens scratch the ground, they remove weeds and aerate the soil; their waste becomes fertilizer which keeps the grass green; all the while eating bugs before they get to our gardens; and the chickens make nutritious eggs, which we then eat.  

WHY NOT JUST LET CHICKENS FREE-RANGE?
In a perfect world, with plenty of land and no predators or neighbors, free ranging is wonderful. Our first foray into chickens was a 4H project my children were involved in. We raised 50 hens. My husband built a coop and fenced yard for them. During the day, we would open the door and let them freely roam our 2-acre urban orchard. It went well until we got a frantic call from our neighbor who wasn’t happy that our hens had pecked holes in her heirloom tomatoes.  Free-ranging allows chickens to roam and eat bugs, but it seems they like to scratch in all the wrong places, uprooting favorite plants and decimating sections of the landscape if you don’t shoo them out. Who has time for that?  That is where the chicken tractor comes in handy. You decide where the work needs to be done and the chickens do the job as nature intended.  

HOW BIG SHOULD A CHICKEN TRACTOR BE?
That will depend on how many chickens you have. Each chicken will need a minimum of 2 square feet of space. And remember, bigger is not always better when it comes time to move the tractor.   Check your local ordinances. If you live somewhere backyard chickens are regulated by ordinance, the number of chickens allowed may already be determined, usually three or four hens and no roosters.   A good rule of thumb to determine how many chickens you need is one hen per family member.  

WHAT KIND OF CHICKENS WORK BEST IN A TRACTOR?
Good news: All chickens like to till, compost and eat green plants and bugs. The breed of chicken is up to you and depends on what you want from your birds.  Bantams are small birds available in a variety of colors. They are fun, self-sufficient little rascals and good tillers, but lay small eggs.  Docile brown-egg layers include: buff orpington, Plymouth Rock, Dorking, cochin, Delaware, red sex-link, Rhode Island red, silver-laced wyandotte, black sex-link and white wyandotte.  A docile brown-egg layer is the leghorn, a smaller bird known for its early and prolific egg production.  If you are looking for “pretty” eggs, try the Araucana or Ameraucana hens. They lay pale bluish green eggs. I love finding a mix of brown and pastel eggs in the nesting boxes, and they are perfect for craft projects (after the yolk and whites are removed).  Any chicken can become a meat chicken, especially those who don’t behave, but experts suggest not mixing egg layers with meat chickens. Meat or broiler chicken breeds such as Cornish rocks have been bred for meat production and are ready to slaughter in about seven weeks (not genetically modified). They are consumed with eating and are not always friendly to the more docile egg-laying hens.  Other broiler-type heritage breeds grow slower and may take up to four months to reach slaughter weight. Although the meat may be more flavorful then the faster-growing Cornish rocks, it might be a bit tougher.  Both types of broiler breeds are perfect in chicken tractors if you have a short-term plan for tilling your garden area or pasture and want the best-tasting chicken you’ve ever had without worrying about extra additives.  

HOW OFTEN DO YOU HAVE TO MOVE A CHICKEN TRACTOR?
That is the beauty of a portable tractor: You move it when you want to move it. Usually every day or every two days so the chickens remove weeds and eat bugs, but don’t root up the grass or plants – unless you want an area totally cleared. This keeps the grass green and the chicken waste spread out so it won’t become offensive and call in all the flies in the neighborhood.  

HOW MANY EGGS DO CHICKENS PRODUCE?
Working chickens are great but the best part of keeping a few hens is the eggs! The number of eggs depends on the breed and age of the hen. The first year you could get about 240 eggs, or 20 dozen per hen, when you average all the egg-laying breeds together; the second year around 200 and the number goes down somewhat in the years to follow. Hens can produce 10 to 12 years if they live that long.  

DO CHICKENS IN A TRACTOR NEED ADDITIONAL FOOD?
Yes. Chickens in a tractor will need less food than cooped-up birds, but they will need a well-balanced feed to supplement their green diet. There are many to choose from at the feed store or you can do a bit of research and mix your own. The age and size of your chickens will help determine your choice. Chickens have no teeth and if the breed is small, or you have small and large breeds together, then you may want your feed in crumbles. If your chickens are all large, then pellets will work. Both crumbles and pellets have the same content, they’re just different sizes. A grower mix is for young chicks from six weeks until they start laying eggs. Once they begin producing eggs, you will switch to a layer feed.  Chickens only eat what they need, so you can just fill up the feeder as it empties. I also add scratch (usually two cracked grains) in the winter for extra energy. They may also occasionally need grit and calcium (if shells become thin).  

WHERE IS THE BEST PLACE TO GET CHICKENS?
Most people start with chicks. Raising baby chicks is a fun family project; they grow fast and are ready for the tractor in a few weeks (as long as the weather is warm). Chicks can be purchased at farm stores and co-ops, even online. Look for sexed chicks so you know what you are buying.    

SHOULD YOU WORRY ABOUT PREDATORS?
I have found that everyone loves chicken and/or eggs for dinner. Foxes, bobcats, raccoons, snakes, birds of prey, coyotes, dogs, cats, possums and even crows will kill little peeps. The best advice is to build a strong tractor, get a good watchdog, and if you can, keep a rooster to alert you when the hens are in danger. Roosters will protect the flock even if it means getting eaten in the process, but they usually raise such a ruckus that someone will take notice.  Many city or urban dwellers think their chickens will be safe, only to find out that predators know no boundaries when it comes to getting a good meal. In fact, we had more issues with marauding foxes and bobcats in town than out in the country.  

THE BASICS OF BUILDING A TRACTOR 
There are many types of chicken tractors for sale at farm stores and online if you want to purchase one; or you can find free plans to build a tractor, or you can design your own. Whether you buy a tractor or build one yourself, just make sure to consider the following:

• 2 square feet, per bird, minimum
• A large door to access food and water
• One nesting box for every two chickens
• A wooden perch with rounded edges
• Strong enough to keep predators out
• A handle or two to make moving easier
• Wheels will help with moving without tearing up the lawn
• A roof to keep out rain and snow
• Good ventilation  
• Feed and water containers that hang or attach to the side  

Just remember that a fancy tractor won’t produce better work or more eggs; and repurposed materials make fine tractors for less money.  

Having a tractor that tills, weeds, composts and debugs your property using chicken power to operate and manual labor to move about, is a win-win for bird, people and the earth beneath our feet.

 

 

A version of this article appeared in a March 2014 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photo Credits: Sidebar photo of silkie ©istockphoto.com/GlobalP; all other photos for this article by Cindy Shapton.

 

 

Posted: 01/04/19   RSS | Print

 

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