As our property is so steep, integrating animals into our food gardens hasn’t been able to happen as much as the permaculture text books imply it should. For example if I put our chickens into our orchard, they’d scratch all the mulch and top soil down to the bottom of the hill – and I would cry. It just wouldn’t work here. So we have some work arounds including using a chicken tractor to move chooks through out veggie patch strategically.
Chicken tractors are a useful tool to integrate chickens into your veggie garden in a controlled way where they don’t trash all your crops. We made a recent one out of scraps lying behind our shed. While it’s not going to win any prizes for craftsmanship or beauty, it does the job :-).
This past season, we’ve been using the chook tractor to help raise up some chicks we hatched.
When do you put them in your garden?
The best time to activate the chook tractor in your garden is in between crops. So when one of our crops has been harvested but still has lots of green mater available, we pop the chook tractor on it and the chooks scratch, eat and peck it apart – until it’s blended back into nice looking mulchy soil. They also drop their manure which helps “feed: the soil. For those folks freaking out about fresh chook poo on the garden (usually not recommended as it’s very strong), a little bit is ok, so you can remain calm :-).
Popular chook tractor designs
Look, there’s heeeaaaps of chook tractor variations, such as did you know you can use an old trampoline and a-frame swing set as structures? Below are a couple outlined in more detail which I think are easy to build and are also portable.
One of the easier ones to build, the one you can see below is from an older rental house we lived in while in naarm/Melbourne. This version is built to be on either fresh grass or the veggie garden you can see behind it. Importantly it’s a light weight version and the chooks were put back into their main run and house each evening (which was also fox-proof). But during the day a couple could have a go at being in the tractor as needed.
The chook dome
The chook dome is designed to fit circular beds and popularised by permaculture author Linda Woodrow in her book ‘The Permaculture Home Garden’. It’s good for people with more flat land and interested in the mandala garden framework.
From DMK Permaculture
Purple Pear Farm mandala garden with chook dome peaking out in the corner.
Key design considerations
While there are many design variations on the chicken tractor the portable versions all share some common design elements. Mainly…
- They’re nice and light (or have wheels and handles) so one-two people can move them easily.
- They’re made to fit the size of your veggie beds (or rows) so they’re 100% efficient and compact moving through the food garden. Sure you can just shuffle them around a grassy area, but it’s a wasted opportunity to integrate them into a food-producing system.
- They all have a weather-proof shelter so the chooks can be protected from rain, the hot sun or predator birds which might want to come and get them.
- There’s also a small roost for them to jump up and hang out/sleep on – imitate a tree’s branch (chooks are originally jungle birds).
Are they fox proof?
Usually no. We don’t have foxes in lutruwita/Tasmania or other predators in nipaluna/Hobart where I live, so we can be more relaxed about the design.
Do the chooks live there permanently?
Definitely not. They’re not big enough to keep chickens happy all the time. The exception is if you only a have a few in a large’ish tractor and you’re moving them daily (to fresh ground) and checking on them multiple times to make sure they’re happy. But generally the idea is that they’re visitors that come and go – returning to a larger, main yard where they can stretch their legs as desired. If for some reason they can’t be moved daily I make sure I dump lots of greens in there twice a day for them to eat and scratch up – you might also need to pop some straw/carbon in there as well to soak up their manure and make sure they have a healthy surface to be on.
Our chook tractor with a fresh load of comfrey leaves in there for them to eat
The main aim of the game is to build soil health in your food gardens and show the chooks a good time with fresh greens and grubs to eat. Done well, it’s a wonderful, symbiotic system where everyone wins.