How to make an inexpensive, lightweight, portable chicken tractor (Part 1)

This past season was our fourth year of raising broiler chickens in chicken tractors on rented pasture. In that time, we’ve refined our chicken tractor style to suit our needs, but the tractor design could be used in lots of different farm setups and environments.

Happy broilers in their new tractor!

Important! Please note that this tractor style is NOT predator-proof. You should make sure to have some electric mesh fence to surround the tractor, or some other predator prevention method. I’ve seen folks mount a single strand around the base of the tractor, and put a solar charger on the tractor itself, but we haven’t tried that yet.

Why this style?

We rent pasture, which happens to be hilly, so our tractors are designed to be lightweight and easy to dismantle to take home at the end of the season — as well as easy to rebuild the next spring. They are also relatively inexpensive, while at the same time using some storebought parts (a metal-framed carport) to cut down on our preparation time.

A key feature of our tractors is that they are tall enough for us to walk in. This is a matter of personal preference — it’s easier to get in there to feed and water, to say nothing of catching them for slaughter day — but also of animal welfare. Our first year, we had a Joel Salatin-style tractor, which is just a couple of feet tall, alongside a walk-in-height one, similar to the ones we now use. They had the same footprint (10×12 if I recall correctly) and the same number of birds in them, give or take a few. When we processed, we found that the birds in the Salatin (short) tractor showed more signs of physical stress, such as feather picking, and they were also smaller than the birds in the tall tractor.

I am sure that folks can make the Salatin tractors be successful, but since the tall tractor isn’t really any more expensive than a short one, we find it to be preferable.

Our model is 10×10 and we can fit 60 Freedom Rangers very comfortably, or up to 75 with some crowding.

Tractor construction

Here is how we build chicken tractors for under $300 that are lightweight, easy to move, secure (with electric fence surrounding), and easy to disassemble at the end of the season and reassemble next year.

We start with a metal-framed portable carport. These can be had at Costco or similar, but we get ours from Amazon, where they are $97-140 (depending on sales). We use the Caravan Canopy 10×20 Carport.

Here is a diagram of what the carport is designed to look like, if you use all the pieces:

A diagram of the carport if it were assembled as designed.

When we assemble it, we omit two 5-foot (purple) sections, so that it looks like this:

Next we create the bottom half of the frame, which is just made of regular storebought PVC pipe, some regular storebought fittings, and some specially purchased fittings from Peaceful Valley. In the following diagram, the three-way corners (blue) are from Peaceful Valley and the Ts are just regular PVC joints (grey).

Note that the Peaceful Valley fittings, like most, come in different sizes. Make sure you get them in the same size as your storebought stuff.

Important! When you put the lid onto the bottom, you will drop the metal (orange, in my diagrams) fittings of the carport over the 3-foot PVC uprights, rather than gluing or screwing them. So make sure, also, that your storebought PVC is small enough to fit inside the metal corners. Your metal fitting size will depend on which carport you get, so I can’t say for sure which size PVC you’ll need.

The uprights here are 3 feet tall because we use 3-foot-tall snow fence as the fencing material, and this way we don’t have to try to patchwork it or have extra flopping around.

In all, for storebought PVC you should need:
Four 10′ lengths (one for each side)
Two 10′ lengths cut into 3′ lengths (for the uprights)
One 10′ length for the long sides of the door
Scrap, or another 10′ length for the short ends of the door (to be discussed later)

So, seven or eight 10′ lengths, depending on whether you’ve already got scrap or have another plan for your door.

The joints in the bottom part of the frame will be subject to stress when dragging the tractor. We screw them together with long screws, going through the corner fitting and into the PVC pipe, from various angles as needed.

Now get a couple folks to help you, and lift the lid up and drop it down onto the base!

You’ve got a chicken tractor!

Finishing it

There are any number of ways to construct a door. We generally use the leftover legs from the carport as the door jamb, and some more PVC to make a rectangle for the door. A post on that is forthcoming; I got tired of making diagrams.

Now you just need to put your chosen fence material all around the tractor. You’ll want lots of zip ties. Again, we use snow/safety fence, like this, but 3 feet tall. It’s pretty easy to work with. You can do a whole tractor with one 100′ roll — nearly two tractors, if you use a tarp for your whole roof.

Oh yeah, you’ll also want a tarp roof to provide shade and cover from precipitation. Depending on the size of your tarp, you can do the whole roof, or just half. If you do half, obviously you need to put snow fence on the other half. Make sure you snug the tarp down well so chickens don’t escape. We usually cut new holes in addition to the existing grommets, and zip tie it down really well.

You can see in the picture above that we’re currently using brown tarps. I think ideally we’d have white, to deflect sun rather than absorbing it. Also, the carport comes with a white tarp, which we could modify (read: cut in half) to suit, for even cheaper construction. However, our pasture is in view of the home of the folks we rent the pasture from, and they requested brown, so brown it is. Compromise is important.

You need a tow rope so you can move the tractor. Tie a rope to two corners, based on which direction you want to move it. For extra awesomeness, slide a couple of spare short lengths of PCV over the rope, so you can grab those rather than having the rope cutting into your hands as you move it.

You do NOT need wheels, or a dolly, or anything else to move it. We move ours up a steep hill by hand, solo.

If your ground is particularly uneven, or you have particularly wily chickens, you might want to put an apron (skirt?) around the tractor — to do this, just get 4-foot snow fence (or whatever) and have the extra flare out around the bottom of the tractor, to obstruct any gaps that may exist between the base of the tractor and the uneven ground.

Drawbacks

The main issue with these tractors is that they are *too* lightweight in some ways. Because our pasture is hilly, we would prefer to hang our waterers from the tractor so they can naturally level themselves, but these metal carport frames are too flimsy. It could handle one waterer if it’s hung at one of the joints, but we bent a pipe on our first tractor by hanging a full waterer in the middle of the pipe.

When we raised turkeys, they were on pasture until well after the stormy season started. Their specific location got pretty windy, and the tractors tended to take off. Occasionally they sailed away a bit, or tipped over, but even when they were just hopping up and down a bit, it spooked the turkeys enough that they broke out (adult turkeys are STRONG!) and flew away and got eaten. (That year we lost 50%+ of our turkeys, most as adults. $$$$, also :( :( :(. That was our last year doing turkeys.)

The cost breakdown

We don’t have exact numbers on this because we tend to have random PVC lengths, fittings, screws, rope, etc. laying around to be scavenged, but here’s an estimate:

Carport: ~$100
Four Peaceful Valley PVC three-way fittings: $12 + shipping
PVC from your local hardware store, eight 10-foot lengths (to be sure to have enough) at ~$5 each: $40
Two T-shaped PVC fittings: ?? Maybe $6 total?
Snow fence: ~$40
Tarp: $20-50, depending on sales (hint: buy tarps when they’re on sale, whether you think you need them or not.)
Rope, screws, zip ties, etc.: incidental
Fittings for door: < $10

Total: approximately $230-250

Next up!

How we are currently building the door for this tractor!
Recommendations for feeders and waterers!

Feedback and discussion!

What style of chicken tractor are you using? How did you develop it, and what are its pluses and minuses? If you follow our model, what are the issues you encountered? We’d love to discuss!

  1 comment for “How to make an inexpensive, lightweight, portable chicken tractor (Part 1)

  1. March 10, 2014 at 12:01 am

    Hello there, thank you so much for the plans for building a lightweight, portable chicken tractor! I’m so thrilled to find this! I live in town and am going to get 3 or 4 baby chicks this spring, but have been worrying over how to build a chicken tractor that was lightweight enough so I could move it myself in my back yard. (I’m in my 70′s, and cannot haul around a heavy item.) I’m wanting chickens for their healthy eggs! This is the first lightweight chicken tractor plan I’ve found, and it sounds fairly easy to put together.
    I also enjoyed your other articles and the pictures you’ve taken. What a delightful website you have!
    Thank you again, so very much!

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