By Harvey Ussery
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If you keep your laying hens in a stationary coop, you’re missing out on their incredible soil building talents. Un-coop that chicken poop by putting your flock in a mobile shelter! Not only does a mobile shelter — or chicken tractor — spread valuable manure, the hens will till it in for you with their claws. Plus they’ll keep your grass short and eat up all the pests they find along the way.
To put your ladies to work, you’ll need to build the perfect chicken tractor: it must be secure enough to keep hens safe from predators, yet mobile enough for you to move it every day.
If you day-range your flock, or use temporary fencing anchored on the henhouse to rotate the flock over fresh plots, the birds always return to the same shelter at night. If you pasture them farther afield, however, you will need a mobile shelter of some sort to rotate them to new ground, and to shelter them at night or when it rains. I’ve seen hundreds of mobile coops, and no two are ever the same. The design you come up with will depend on the size of your flock, how you intend to use their services, leftover materials from other projects begging to be used, the nature of your climate and ground—perhaps on how whimsical you happen to be feeling.
Pasture Pens and Pasture Shelter
Micro-flocks on lawn or pasture are often confined entirely to the shelter, which is moved frequently to new grass. The larger the flock size, however, the larger the protected foraging space you will want to provide the birds. As discussed in the previous chapter, I use electric net fencing for giving my birds an extensive area to roam outside the shelter. If you do not use electro-net, however, you might provide a pasture pen using a set of light wooden frame panels with chicken wire, easily locked together using bolts with wing nuts, and just as easily disassembled for moving. Whether you need to attach a frame over the top of the pen will depend on aerial predation where you are.
Trade-Offs: Size, Weight, and Stability
The heavier a shelter, the more difficult, and possibly the more dangerous, it is to move. On the other hand the lighter it is, the more likely it is to be tossed into the next county by a rambunctious wind. Shape also plays a part in stability in heavier winds: I have found the boxier-type shelters with a higher profile catch the wind, while hoop or A-frame shapes tend to keep their feet on the ground. (The classic Polyface model, 10 by 12 feet, is indeed rectangular in shape, but it is only 24 inches high and stable even in strong winds.) Materials choices have the biggest impact on weight of the shelter.
A final option for reducing weight is to use chick- en wire as much as possible in lieu of solid material, consonant with the need for protection from rain, sun, and sharp chilly winds in part of the shelter.
I prefer wheels for all my larger shelters. Instead of installing axles across the entire width of the shelter, I permanently install half-inch bolts in the bottom rail at each corner, using nuts, flat washers, and lock washers. If your ground is nice and even, an 8-inch wheel might work for you. I found that, with an 8-inch wheel, the bottom rear rail of the shelter hung up on tussocks of grass. The additional clearance with a 10-inch wheel makes moving much easier on my pasture.
If wheels are to be permanently installed, bicycle wheels—or other large wheels looking to be recycled, like the front wheels from an old tractor—make moving over uneven ground easiest of all.
Does Your Shelter Need a Floor?
The whole idea of using a mobile shelter is to give its occupants access to fresh grass, so it usually makes sense to make the shelter floor-less. Some management choices, however, might make a floor advisable. For example, young birds are easier to move with no risk of injury from the rear bottom rail (see below) if on a floor. If you do install a floor in your shelter, I recommend using wire or plastic mesh, as droppings will accumulate on a solid floor, requiring frequent clean-out from the tight confines of the interior.
If the shelter is inside an electric net perimeter, you will not have to worry about digging predators. However, if there are large owls in your neighborhood, close the shelter at night—nocturnal owls hunt on the wing, but also land and walk around looking for prey.
If the shelter is not inside an electric net, remember that raccoons and dogs may tear a hole in chicken wire—in the case of 2-inch mesh, a raccoon may feed on its victim by tearing it apart right through the wire. If you are designing for such threats, use half-inch hardware cloth instead, well secured to the framing. Foil digging predators with a wire mesh floor (2-by-4 welded wire allows both access to the grass and protection from digging predators)—or by laying 18-inch panels of chicken wire on light wood framing flat on the ground, entirely around the shelter.
The best option of all is to wire for defense: Run some single-strand electric wire around the entire shelter, standing it off from the sides with plastic or porcelain insulators, one at nose level and ideally another about 12 inches up. An inexpensive charger powered by a 9-volt battery is sufficient to charge such a small run of wire.
Nests and Other Thoughts
If the shelter will house layers, you should add nest boxes, which can be mounted above ground level on existing framing pieces. A hinged door—to shield the nest from rain but give you access from the outside— is a better option than crawling into the shelter to collect eggs. If hens are inclined to roost and poop in the nest, an additional hinged cover to swing into place at night may be in order.
Even a shelter heavy enough to withstand ordinary winds may flip when a gale blows. When weather predictions here are for winds well beyond the ordinary, I temporarily “nail” my shelters down using an earth anchor—essentially, an abbreviated auger screw on the end of a steel rod with an eye hook on its top end. Another way to temporarily secure a shelter is to hang a couple of 5-gallon buckets from the framing inside and fill them with water—that’s over 80 pounds— using a garden hose. Just empty the buckets when it’s time to move the shelter.
Remember your chickens’ need to dust bathe. Since there is no opportunity for them to do so if constantly on fresh grass, either provide an onboard dust box or set one out for them on the pasture anytime there is no possibility of rain.
Most shelters are designed to be used in the warmer parts of the year only. If you are going to house your birds in the shelter in winter as well, you will need to make at least the part where they sleep a good deal tighter against the winter winds, snow, and rain.
I am more comfortable working with wood, so all my shelters have had wooden frames, with one exception— a hoop structure based on half-inch solid fiberglass rods as purlins and as arches, anchored into a wooden foundation frame. I don’t use any pressure-treated wood anywhere on the place remotely connected to producing food. To help prevent rot, I coat all framing pieces in direct contact with the ground with nontoxic sealer, renewed periodically as needed. Using a highly rot-resistant wood—eastern red cedar in my area—would be a better option if you can get it. You might design so that the bottom rails—the parts most subject to rot— can be replaced without taking apart the entire shelter. Or mount the frame on plastic rails.
When out of service over the winter, a wood- frame shelter should always be set up on blocks.
Beginners often think of lightweight 1-inch plastic pipe or the like for framing a shelter. I’ve never seen one that inspired much confidence—such plastic is pretty fragile and breaks down in sunlight. Heavier plastic pipe (Schedule 40 PVC, for example) is another matter—I’ve corresponded with many flocksters who have used it for shelters that are both sufficiently rugged and easily moved. I’ve never used plastic pipe myself.
Electrical conduit is light and easily shaped. You may see references to its use for framing mobile shelters, but most reports I’ve read about it have been negative. Both angle iron and rebar—concrete reinforcing rods made of soft iron—make sturdy frames for those with welding skills and equipment.
Heavy canvas tarps are tough and weatherproof and make a better choice than plastic tarps. There is one option in plastic covering worth considering, however: 24-mil woven polyethylene—incredibly tough, durable plastic sheeting interwoven with a fiber mesh. I have used metal roofing for the solid covering on a number of my shelters. Aluminum roofing is lighter but more expensive; steel, heavier but cheaper.
I strongly advise against assembling your mobile shelter with nails, which work loose over time as the frame is yanked around; use screws instead. I prefer the self-drilling types such as coarse-threaded decking screws, which don’t require pilot holes (as do conventional wood screws) and thus save time. (I do drill a pilot hole for a deck screw going into the last 3 inches of a framing piece, to prevent splitting.) Deck screws with Phillips heads are available galvanized or coated. The best screws of all are stainless-steel decking screws with star-drive heads. Though a lot more expensive than the alternatives, their faster, slip-free drilling and rustproof durability are important considerations for a shelter requiring a lot of screws, and facing prolonged weathering.
Moving the Shelter
Twisted wire or cable, run through a piece of scrap garden hose, makes a convenient pull for moving the shelter.
When moving a floorless shelter with young or careless birds inside, watch the trailing edge of the bottom frame. Usually the chooks come running as fresh grass is exposed, but those who dither at the rear may get a leg caught between the ground and the moving rail. Actual injuries are rare if you pull slowly, and stop and release a hapless bird at the first shriek of distress.
About the Author:
Harvey Ussery has been developing his whole-systems poultry husbandry for decades and has been writing about chickens and other fowl for Backyard Poultry since the inception of the magazine in early 2006. He has also written numerous articles for Mother Earth News and Countryside & Small Stock Journal, and has published in American Pastured Poultry Producers Association’s newsletter, Grit!, over the years. Ussery has presented at national and local events on poultry, homesteading, and energy and sustainability issues, and maintains a highly informative website, themodernhomestead.us. He lives with his wife, Ellen, in Virginia.