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Chicken Tractor in high-predator area

 
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Hello!

I just joined! I have been reading and watching a lot about permaculture and similar things. I am wanting to do gardening and chicken raising, etc. differently. I have a lot of questions, but I hope I can start with this for now..

First, I want to get chickens again. I had them a few years back but they were killed so often I finally gave up. They had a covered run, but still something was eating them. We have a high predator area. I am seeing a lot of good chicken tractors, but I have serious concerns about whether a chicken tractor will protect chickens from predators?

I really want to use a chicken tractor design. I want to be able to move it over the gardens and lawn and fields, to both improve those areas and give them more good things to eat.

I'm thinking, at least for starting, I would not let them out to free range at all, but I would move it, probably daily, so they still got a lot of good grass and bugs and things. I do want the chicken tractor type for laying hens, with nest boxes. And preferably something that is warm enough that I can use year round (average low here in January is 30).

1. Does anyone have any recommendations for using chicken tractors in a high-predator area? Will it work? I think the biggest concern will be predators slipping under the tractor. Since the ground isn't always flat, this is a particular concern.

2. Any recommended designs for a good predator-proof, warm, nesting box enabled chicken tractor? Probably will only start with 4-8 chickens. If this goes well, I might try a larger set up a la Joel Salatin.

Thank you!
 
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What are the predators. I have fox, skunk, possums, raccoons and my chickens do well. All of these are night time predators.  I have no issues letting them out during the day. As long as they are locked in at night all is good.
 
Becky Isbell
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I'm not 100% sure what the predators are. I think last time it was feral cats. The neighbor's dog is a concern. We also have coyotes, foxes, raccoons, badgers, bobcats, ring-tail cats. I know there are mountain lions around, too, but I doubt they're going after chickens... The wire around the chicken pen was too wide last time, I think the cats were grabbing them through the bars and killing them. I can certainly make a secure chicken coop. It's a secure MOVABLE chicken coop (tractor) that I worry about. I hope to try free ranging at some point, but at the moment I really just want to get them secure in a chicken tractor.

The chickens were killed in the daytime, not free ranging.
 
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I built my last chicken tractor with 1/4 inch hardware cloth on all the screened areas and haven't had any deaths since.  When you use the hardware cloth,  sandwich it between two pieces of wood rather than just stapling it to one surface.  Also,  make sure the screws you use to sandwich the boards together go through the hardware cloth on all sides.  No predator can get through hardware cloth unless they destroy the entire structure.  As far as the temperature goes,  as long as they have good ventilation and stay dry, 30 degrees is no problem at all.  Mine do fine at -25 degrees Fahrenheit.
 
Becky Isbell
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Thank you! I knew part of the problem last time was that I had too wide of an opening in the chicken wire. (Wasn't actually chicken wire and chicks could slip through...) But my main concern was with predators getting underneath the chicken tractor. You have not found this to be a problem?
 
Trace Oswald
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I haven't had that problem but it sounds like your predator pressure is higher than mine.  If it is that bad,  you may want to put wire screen on the bottom as well.  For the bottom,  something like chicken wire would work,  and the chickens could still eat through the bottom.
 
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To prevent digging you can put a chicken wire apron around the OUTSIDE of the pen, maybe a foot wide and either stapled so it stays on the ground or bury it a little. If animals try to dig under the fence they encounter the wire.  I wouldn't put wire on the ground inside the fence line, the chickens like to scratch and if they hurt/puncture their feet they can easily get bumblefoot.

If you get a new batch of chicks considering keeping them in a smaller pen with hardware cloth or chicken wire INSIDE the larger fenced in coop area. When they are big enough to be held by the outer fencing (mine is 4" x 1") then let them into the bigger pen. Chickens don't usually get harmed by predators reaching THROUGH the fence in the daytime, especially if they are in a large roomy pen.

As far as predators go I don't see any benefit to a chicken tractor (and I suspect it would be a big clumsy hassle), a regular securely built coop is probably better. The fact you don't know what was killing your previous birds creates issues, usually there is evidence left behind that tells you what the predator was.
 
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If you can, a mobile chicken tractor will spread out the manure for you, as well as offering secure fresh grazing for your chickens. A fixed coop needs to be cleaned and, unless there are multiple runs, will become depopulated of anything living in a hurry.

But you are already aware of the many advantages to chicken tractoring, and likewise aware of all the disadvantages of fixed coop-and-run setups.

I wouldn't use chicken wire as a bottom to the tractor for the reasons Lucrecia mentioned. I would use a 2" x 2" welded wire or something comparable that couldn't be disassembled by scratching chickens into something sharp and stabby.

You can attach foot-wide strips of welded wire in an apron on the outside of the chicken tractor, and easily tie them off in the up position to move the tractor. I would cut the aprons so that there are 1" spikes all around, that I would then bend 90 degrees, so that they point into the soil. Anything trying to burrow under would get gouged quite badly.

Let us know how it goes, and good luck.

-CK
 
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First off I'd like to say that we've tried hard and read lots, and there is almost no way to be sure you will never loose a bird to predators. The possible exception is one Paul promotes - a well-trained protection dog. I did not grow up with dogs, so it's a learning curve I have not yet tackled. In the meantime, we have issues with both aerial and ground predators and my husband runs a small chicken and egg business and he's not into permaculture, but he is into Joel Salatin, so I will show you what he's come up with and maybe it will have some ideas you can use.
1. I adopted two Toulouse X geese that free range in the area the chicken shelters move through - this has decreased the tendency for daytime predation. After all, *I* wouldn't want to argue with a ticked-off Heinrich, so I don't imagine a feral cat would either! Warning - geese are LOUD.
2. Our adult layers move daily. Our environment is very wet, so we went with plastic with hardware cloth on the lower panel - it used to be chicken wire, but we've stopped buying chicken wire as it won't keep anything out. We have electric fencing on the outside which isn't fool-proof - we probably have something defeat it every 2 years or so, and we immediately try to trap the guilty party so it doesn't call all its friends. This means we have to be able to connect to 'shore power' through long extension cords that plug into the shelters electrical system. The system is held on with bolts and wing nuts so it can be removed for cleaning, repairs etc.
3. I'm a whimp - so I *really* pushed for light weight. I can just move our 10 ft x 12 ft shelter, and I would prefer it housed 15 hens and one rooster, but I got out-voted. I have to pick my battles. To counter balance the light weight and our gusty winds, it has to be staked down with giant nails after we move it. We use two in calm weather on the trailing edge for convenience, but if there's a wind warning, we stake all four corners.

I'll post a couple of pictures and then continue:
Layers-and-nest-box.JPG
[Thumbnail for Layers-and-nest-box.JPG]
The nest box has been *very* carefully made to be as light weight as possible. It has a removable back for easy cleaning and it lifts off the wall by unhooking two chains.
2013-ch-shelter-with-meat-birds.JPG
[Thumbnail for 2013-ch-shelter-with-meat-birds.JPG]
This shows the outside - there's a door at each end. Even commercial meat chicks like fresh grass!
 
Lucrecia Anderson
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One super cool idea that I heard a while back, and really want to try one day, is a chicken coop with two separate very large runs.

One run holds the birds and the other is used as a vegetable garden, each year the birds switch runs. The birds defoliate and fertilize the soil of their pen after a year which makes it perfect for planting, and a month or so before the runs are switched again it would be easy to grow a cover crop for the birds so their "new run" is full of grass.

I have 14 birds in a 20x40 ft run and it always has various weeds/bushes in it, the grass disappeared after a year or two but it is never barren. Plus I get a 5 gal bucket full of poop from under the roosts once a month  and that can go in a compost pile or straight on future garden beds (if they pooped it all on the lawn it would just make the grass grow faster which I do not need -- I want it for the vegetable garden).
 
Jay Angler
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Continued: If you look at the front of the layer picture, there are two parallel perches that bolt through the ribs with I think 5/8ths hardware - again they're removable with wrenches, although I find they're easier to power-wash in place. The feed hangs between them. The girls love grass, but it doesn't have enough nutritive value to take them off chicken feed, but hanging the feeder above the perches helps them defend the feed from rats. Both raccoon and mink predate rats - keep the rats away, and you've made your life easier.

Another goal was to have the whole shelter easy to clean as with the birds moving around on grass and lots of wild birds around, mites and lice happen. With the girls out and the electrical removed, I can power-wash the whole shelter in ~2 hours. One of my biggest complaints about most chicken houses I've met - portable and fixed - are that there are tooooo..... many nooks and crannies where mites can set up shop. My second biggest complaint is fixed nest boxes that can't be easily removed for a thorough cleaning. Older birds, no matter how well cared for, may start laying softer shelled eggs before taking a laying holiday. There's a reason many home-made paint recipes call for egg!! I can remove the 3-seater in the picture in less than a minute. Unscrewing the back takes another 2 at most. Scrubbing it can take an hour if it's a real mess, but I'm only willing to use dish soap, water, and arm muscles because I don't want harmful residual smells.

In my permaculture dreams (and I am collecting and starting plants towards the goal) is to have a series of 5 paddocks that the portable shelter can be rolled up to for ~1 week at a time. Bloom (The Chicken Friendly Garden) has an excellent list of suitable plants to choose from. This would decrease our feed costs, improve the diet of the chickens, and still be reasonably safe but it will take a lot of quality fencing.

The shelters pictured have sturdy wheels that can be removed by sliding them out of the corner fitting. We do this every time we move the shelter when it contains small birds (2 - 4 week old meat birds for example) but otherwise we use salvaged pieces of 3 or 4 inch pipes on the outside if the land isn't level enough to keep the gap small enough. Sometimes we need a pipe or two, but if there's a big problem, we usually just move the shelter a little further until the gaps look better. That said, I can't remove the wheels independently, and we also have Muscovy ducks who live to set and brood. They don't need 10x12' for day-olds either, so I did a 4 ft x 8 ft "mini-hoop" using 2 inch pipe at the base for easy sliding and 1/2" pipe for the hoops. The birds love them, I love them, but my husband hates them as the only way I could fit a door was "gull-wing" with an ~18" step-over height, so they're finicky to make. Unfortunately, my computer blew up and the one I'm on won't open the pictures. If people are interested, I will try to find a work-around (maybe emailing them all to myself would work???)

The system we're using is too time consuming for even the size we've grown to. That said, the organic matter in the lower field has been improved dramatically - it stays green longer when the drought hits, shows lots of signs of worm poop, and is holding water better. Also, the chickens really like it. They run for the fresh grass when we move them, they're in 15-20 birds "families" which they seem to like, and they are generally healthy. It's fairly easy to spot if a chicken's not well when you're moving their shelter every day, so problems tend to get dealt with early. We've even had the odd bird go broody, although if one does we move her to protective custody and make sure she's got some quality eggs to sit on.
 
Jay Angler
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Lucrecia Anderson wrote:

One run holds the birds and the other is used as a vegetable garden, each year the birds switch runs.

I know people who do this, but if I had a choice, I would divide the area into more smaller areas. You could still use half, or depending on your growing season more than half, for your growies, but you'd be able to rotate the hens from section to section of the "fallow" area, letting weeds grow for a couple of weeks before returning the chickens to the area. This still requires you to have a stationary coop with either a deep mulch system under it, or some way of cleaning it out easily. Stationary coops can get stinky *very* fast if you aren't adding enough carbon "brown" material to the high nitrogen chicken deposits. If a shelter is moving every day or so, the poop will be dealt with by worms and microorganisms.
 
Lucrecia Anderson
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Jay Angler wrote:Lucrecia Anderson wrote:

One run holds the birds and the other is used as a vegetable garden, each year the birds switch runs.

I know people who do this, but if I had a choice, I would divide the area into more smaller areas. You could still use half, or depending on your growing season more than half, for your growies, but you'd be able to rotate the hens from section to section of the "fallow" area, letting weeds grow for a couple of weeks before returning the chickens to the area. This still requires you to have a stationary coop with either a deep mulch system under it, or some way of cleaning it out easily. Stationary coops can get stinky *very* fast if you aren't adding enough carbon "brown" material to the high nitrogen chicken deposits. If a shelter is moving every day or so, the poop will be dealt with by worms and microorganisms.



I use a poop shelf under the roosts with PDZ (like scoopable cat liter). The poop gets dumped into a bucket once a day and the hen house stays smelling very fresh. Plus after 4-6 weeks I have a whole bucket of pure chicken poop for the garden and chicken manure has several times the nitrogen and other nutrients than cow or horse manure. My hen house has to have a solid/sealed wood floor to keep snakes out at night (they will kill young birds and even adult OEG bantams even if they can't swallow them).

The thing that would complicate the two run setup for me is the fact I have avian netting over their run to keep the bantams in. Can't easily garden underneath the netting and it is a real pain to move.
 
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My chicken tractor is 4' x 8' with quarter-inch wire mesh.  Nothing gets close to the birds.  I built the 4 x 8  (x 3 feet tall) structure and then built the coop on top of it, so that the entire area below is open for the girls to scratch.  At night, they ascend up the ramp and are safe up in the coop above.  

Around the base of the tractor, I have several boards that I drop around the edges to discourage anything from trying to dig under.  When I move it, I put a 2-wheeled dolly under the heavy end (where the coop is located).  My dear wife handles that end.  I drag from the other end (which is lighter and easy to lift.  Away we go.  It's a heavy beast, but two people can move it.  We do so once every week or so.  But that weight makes it impossible for something to get their nose under the side and wiggle under it.

I let the girls out in the evening, about an hour or two before sundown so that they can run around and scratch and get some fresh grass.  They go back in when it starts getting dark.

We've got coyotes, possums, raccoons, owls, skunks, hawks, feral cats and other predators, but I've never lost a single bird.  I'm more likely to squash a bird when I move the chicken tractor than I am to lose one to a predator.

 
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Becky,
I have been trying to find answers to this question as well.  I get lots of other information, but not any real good answers so far.  Have you come up with anything yet?  

It is clear, that almost every coop build talks about putting the hardware cloth around the outside and burying it to keep predators from digging under, but that would not work on a chicken tractor.  So, I'm trying to come up with something on my own.  

Here is what I am going to try.  I will attach a 16 in wide strip of hardware cloth to the bottom rails on all 4 sides, over lapping at the corners.  I think, I can easily bend it up off the ground in order to move it.  Then, as cumbersome as it might be, I will lay 2x4s along the edges of the wire and have several holes drilled in them about 2 to 3 feet apart and pound a into the hole that will hold it down.  We have clay soil, so I think the stakes will hold.  I think this will be a lot of work, but it will do the job.  Because I won't want to have to move this every day, I am building the tractor as large as I can without it being to hard to move.  I am also going to use portable electric fencing and create a large 40 x 50 foot area for them to forage.  The weakest part of that idea is that we have hawks, however I will use some tarps to create an area for them to duck for cover, plus they will be able to run into the coop which has wire over the top.  I'm going to try keeping a rooster, as they are good at warning the flock about hawks.  At night they will be secure inside the roosting area.  

I think the method with be about as secure as one could hope for.  Moving the coop with will be a bit more time consuming and labor intensive that otherwise, but even if the area is tapped out of grass and bugs after a few days, I don't plan on moving it more than once per week.  I am going to start with 10 chickens, so I'm hoping a week will be just about right.  

I hope this helps.
Natalie
 
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Only time I had a problem I had a hole in the pasture, but all I saw was grass. They managed to crawl into the coup and killed my Sumatra’s. Other than that I’ve had no problem. Just used regular chicken wire.
 
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If the ground is uneven it’s going to be hard to guarantee your chickens will be safe in a bottomless tractor. I’m in your same position. I’ll be building two of the Suskovich tractors, one for turkeys and one for Red Rangers. I may build a third for my layers, or I may build a Rhodes “ChickShaw” for them. Haven’t decided. I will surround all of them with electric netting energized by a solar charger. They’ll free range in that paddock all day then be locked in their houses for the night and in the morning I’ll move them. So they have those two layers of protection, plus they can run into/under a shelter in case of hawks. Hopefully this will work, but there’s nothing a hundred percent.
 
Jay Angler
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Cindy Skillman wrote:

I may build a Rhodes “ChickShaw” for them.

My understanding is that Mr. Rhodes doesn't leave his birds in the ChickShaw during the winter. Also, electric net fencing certainly didn't cope with the unexpected snow we got this year. So it's great to have them portable in the summer, but for year-round birds, some sort of multiple run system with shrubs for coverage from predators is another option.
 
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I had a lot of predator pressure and ended up with a 3x4 coop built onto a 3x8run with 1/2 inch hardware cloth on the walls and 1x4 fencing on the floor. One side accepts wheels to move it around like a wheel barrow. Its really only good for about 8 laying hens. I use it in the early spring and fall and roll it into the hoop house for overwintering my laying hens. In the warmer season I move them to an enclosed trailer with a run made out of electric fencing and get all my new chicks to grow out. I buy dual purpose birds so I choose good prospect to keep come fall.  I still have to make sure to lock them up at night in either coop though since the predators never give up. Come winter when all the edges of the hoop house are snowed down ill give them the run on the place. They do an awesome job of removing any and all vegetation. I usually overwinter kale and fence them into only one section but they got out this winter and razed everything...
Winter digs:



summer digs:
 
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