If you’ve spent time around poultry, you’ve noticed that chickens love to eat insects, weeds, and grass. They also love to scratch in the dirt and drop lots of fertilizer. Since chickens can provide natural insect control, weed control, tilling and fertilizing, it may seem hard to imagine why every gardener doesn’t have a flock running around the yard. But, many of us want to control what weeds, grass and plants are eaten, and where fertilizer is deposited. One method of doing so is a chicken tractor, a lightweight, moveable pen for confining and protecting poultry while allowing the flock to graze on pasture and grass. Many gardeners use the enclosures to place a small flock in areas that need grass and weed removal for garden plots.
After spending time researching building plans and the benefits of chickens, I was looking forward to adding a flock and a chicken tractor to our small farmstead. I chose the breed of hen I wanted to raise, and made a list of recommended hatcheries. But, all my plans changed when I discovered that most mail order hatcheries insist on a minimum of 25 chicks in an order.
I knew our family wouldn’t want to part with any of the fuzzy baby chicks that arrived on the farmstead, and a chicken tractor large enough to house 25 adult chickens, with nests and roosts, would be too large and too heavy for me to move without help. Then Dad asked the question, “Why not build a hen house and place it in the chicken yard where it could be moved around, as the site was cleared?”
Part of the flock is lined up at the front of the shed for a photo session a few days before the chicken yard was rearranged again. In the background you can see how clean and weed free the new garden area has become.
Building materials needed to be sturdy enough to be semi-permanent, lightweight enough to be moved and removed, and robust enough to be used over and over. Because of our mild winters and the lack of predators in our area, we did not build with freezing weather, coyotes, or other predators in mind. Our ideas would need to be modified for homesteaders dealing with those conditions.
We began with an 8′ x 8′ wooden shed kit from a home improvement store. Instead of erecting it on a slab or platform, an 8′ x 8′ square was built from 4 x 4 timbers, leaving the center or floor area open. The open floor area was later covered with stable bedding, to a depth of about six inches.
The shed was constructed on the eight-foot base. It is stable, heavy, and somewhat permanent, but when it must be moved, we will run a chain under one of the timbers and hook it over bolts placed in the 4 x 4′s, on the inside of the shed. The other end of the chain can be connected to our truck, so the shed can be dragged across the ground to a new location.
The chicken yard was built using six foot chicken wire fencing, and 10-foot lengths of rebar for fence posts. The lumberyard in the nearest town only carried 20-foot lengths and would not cut them for us. However, they offered to deliver my order, as part of another large order headed in our direction. I quickly accepted, to avoid transporting 20-foot poles home in my truck. Using a chop saw with a metal cutting blade, we cut the bars to size. I have since learned that the Lowe’s building center in a neighboring county sells the bars in 10-foot lengths, and will cut to order.
I used a four-foot length of rebar to make starter holes for the rebar fence posts. Using a medium weight sledgehammer, I pounded the bar three feet into the ground and then removed it, leaving a starter hole. The hole could be softened a bit with water during or after the starting process, depending on the dryness of the ground. Once the starter bar is removed, the 10-foot length was placed in the hole, with seven feet remaining above ground. The bars were placed no more than 10 feet apart. Chicken wire was attached to the shed with heavy-duty staples, and to the rebar with nylon wire ties. Additional rebar was woven in and out of the chicken wire along the bottom of the fence, to weight it down. Landscape pins were also woven through and placed in the ground for additional security.
The first yard began on the front right corner of the shed, traveling straight out in front for five feet, so there would be some room in front of the shed doors. A bar was placed in the ground for a gatepost. Enough space was left for the gate opening and another gatepost was added. Chicken wire was stapled to the second gatepost as well, as it started it’s run again. The wire ran straight for 40 feet, with rebar posts every 10 feet, and turned backward, running parallel to the left side of the shed for 13 feet. Then the fence turned back toward the rear of the shed and reconnected to the back of it.
Our little flock grew fat and sassy on the grass, and we were able to save around one third of our estimated feed bill. After about four months, there wasn’t a blade of grass left in the chicken yard. But there was a lot of well-fertilized loose soil. So, I closed the doors to the shed one evening when the chickens were all inside for the night. The next morning, I removed the nylon wire ties that were connecting the chicken wire to the rebar, and loosely rolled up the wire. Next, the rebar was pulled out of the holes, and the shape of the chicken yard was modified. It still began on the right front, and ran across the front of the shed, but now it took a sharp turn toward the back of the shed as soon as it was four feet beyond the left front corner. This time, the chicken yard ran on past the end of the shed, and out into the yard about 30 feet, before turning right for 12 feet and turning again, to connect the right rear corner of the shed.
When we opened the shed doors, their new, grassy backyard dazzled our hens. After only about an hour’s work, they had new pasture, and I had a newly weeded, tilled and fertilized, bug free garden space. It is quite a large plot, and grows great vegetables. Next spring, I plan to move the chicken yard to the right side of the shed, and expand my garden area into the current chicken yard. When the hens have worked the soil in the third section, we plan to move the henhouse and all the fencing to another area of the property, back beyond the garden, where our little “chicken tractors” can start clearing for our orchard.
The most expensive part of our project was the shed kit henhouse. I took lots of kidding from our farming neighbors about our “citified” henhouse when I was erecting the shed. As I secured the farmstead for Hurricane Rita last fall, I placed anchors in the ground on each side of the shed and tossed a wide tie down strap across the roof, connecting it to the anchors. The hurricane arrived, bringing wind gusts of up to ninety miles an hour, but our flock stayed safe and dry in their sturdy shelter. And, the neighbors haven’t teased me about the henhouse since the storm.