"he shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water, that bringeth forth his fruit in his season; his leaf also shall not wither; and whatsoever he doeth shall prosper"

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The Chicken Tractor

I'll preempt this blog entry with a warning of sorts. It will definitely exceed the 140 character limitation on twitter. What is a Chicken Tractor? Simply put, it's a mobile chicken coop, that allows chickens to free range in a field, (or in this case, my back yard) with protection from the elements and predators. It is multipurpose, in that it also provides my yard with pest control and fertilizer as I move it around. Chicken tractors come in a variety of shapes & sizes to fit the needs or wants of an eccentric flock of owners. Check here to see some pretty amazing variety in Mobile Chicken Housing

My past winters reading was everything chicken. From housing to raising, to feeds, and breeds (over 300 different recognized). I started accumulating information in November, and really haven't stopped researching even after the building was completed last week. The public library and the internet gave me more information than I could need. One topic that I became deeply concerned about early on was Winter itself. My search led me to a book that Rachel helped me procure for a week. I was some ancient text from a Public Library in St. Louis, that provided me the answer. The solution was not at all what I expected. The book was Fresh-Air Poultry Houses The Classic Guide to Open-Front Chicken Coops for Healthier Poultry by Prince T. Woods, M.D. Wow, that's a mouthful!

It was originally published back in 1924 and describes how Dr. Woods experimented in the cold of winter in Massachusetts by removing the entire south side of a chicken house and watched how the chickens radically improved in health from the fresh air despite the bitter temperatures and snow drifts on the chicken house floor! Needless to say I was impressed and enchanted by this read as he documented the effects of fresh air on chickens in very cold climates. Human nature is to seal these birds up tight and hope they stay warm enough. It turns out what chickens really need is lots of fresh air, as their lungs are very weak. Chickens also don't have sweat glands, so they are very efficient at keeping warm, and actually have a harder time keeping cool. After I gleaned this info, it really gave me a lot of freedom on my design and ventilation became a key compenent. I love old world knowledge, and it's really a blessing to dig up treasures and put them back into use. I hope Dr. Woods would be proud.

Another aspect that concerned me was water & feed containers. Chicken watering devices are typically large gravity fed upside down buckets that have a tray of water in the bottom that gets easily fouled and spilled by the chickens, creating a mess of massive proportions that needs daily cleansing and refilling. I was determined to find a better solution. I window shopped at Tractor Supply and online, until eventually I somehow landed at the Avian Aqua Miser website. This interesting couple from Dungannon, VA helped me find my way. These folks are serious about chickens and they certainly have the American Entrepreneur Spirit. They are using a stainless steel gravity fed nipple (similar to gerbil and rabbit watering devices) that they have installed in a simple plastic water pitcher. Here is what they look like:

Ingenious, I think, but I just couldn't bear to pay $20.00 for something that had to cost 1/4 of that. So some more scouting led me to Farmtek, , my newest favorite online store, and ordered a handful at $2.00 a piece to make my own. I doubt I will ever purchase much from them but it's so fun to browse!

I installed 2 of these in my own larger oval pitcher and cut a hole in the second floor of the coop for it to seat in. The chickens access from below. This find really has me tickled because it keeps the chickens water VERY clean, limits water waste completely, and supposedly inhibits their desire to peck at each other because they have to furiously peck at the device to drink! This was documented by lots of users of the Avian Aqua Miser, and I tend to agree after watching the chicks use it. I taught each chick how to drink from a smaller container with the same gravity feeders by holding their little beaks up to the steel tip and letting a few drops trickle down. They were just a few hours old and they caught on within just a few minutes! Here is the pitcher in place on the chicken tractor and below that in the background is the original container that I used when they were baby chicks to transition them to the larger one they use now.

As for feed I opted for a simple 2 stall bin fastened to the 2nd floor of the tractor so it's always covered and dry and because it's deep enough to keep them from flipping food everywhere eliminating waste and spoilage.

The Hens will lay eggs in the nest box which has it's own door. I want to try and avoid using stray or bedding material as it just gets fouled. I am going to try this floor mat that has a dry grass feel to it. I read somewhere that this will suffice as the hens feel they can scratch it, and it keeps the egg from getting broken.

I used a little Pythagorean Theorem to calculate the rise and run of my tractor to ensure I didn't make any wrong cuts and waste lumber, and went with treated lumber for longevity, and so I didn't have to paint. The chicken tractor took a couple weeks to complete as I tried to really think through the process and tweak my design architecture as I went along to save on time, materials, and the need to re-mod it later.

Here's the Finished Product:

Our Chickens were born on March 19th at Heartland Hatchery in Amsterdam, MO and were thereafter named on the journey home by Ella. We purchased 4 hens at $2.50 each, and liking diversity selected 3 different breeds. We have one Red Sex Link "Reddie", one Black Sex Link "Cutie Pie" and two Golden Comets "Goldie" and "Gracie" whom we can no longer tell apart. (Well I can't, but I think Ella says she can.) These are all hybrids that when born can be differentiated (male & female) by color, hence they are called color-sexed chickens. For us this was critical because a rooster crowing in Raytown would be a bit loud, and besides it's against the law! Speaking of laws, we are in compliance to the city of Raytown's Animal Ordinance which allows us to have 4 fowl on our property. Here are Cutie Pie and Gracie the day we brought them home. Gives you an idea how fast they have grown!

We should see eggs by August or September which really isn't that far away, but in the meantime, we quite enjoy just watching and caring for them. Each chicken has it's own personality, and they can be quite hysterical at times. And oh, the lab has decided she will be our chicken herder/guardian for those who were wondering..

Until Next Time..


Reba said...

Thanks for posting your process - so interesting! Great pics.

Jess said...

Your Welcome! I am still fascinated by the whole thing myself.