By Kate Fulmore
Happy, healthy chickens, cows, and sheep – flavorful, nutritious eggs – fertile soil – with benefits like these, we’ve wanted to adopt Joel Salatin’s amazing methods for pasture-raised eggs for a while now. And we’ve just completed the construction of our mobile chicken tractor!
But before I describe the building process for the mobile chicken coop, I want to explain why it’s so important to the system. Although we have always allowed our layers to free range most of the year, this summer will be the first time we intentionally integrate our laying hens into our intensive rotational grazing system as a way to regenerate our land and supplement chicken feed.
Our sheep and cows rotate every day onto a new small piece of pasture so they are forced to trim back all the foliage and stimulate root growth under the soil surface. This quick, one pass method, with consistent movement every 24 hours, allows us to build soil and not overgraze any one particular area of the pasture.
Now, by using the mobile coop to bring the chickens onto the same piece of pasture four days after the other animals move on, we can bulk up this system and benefit the chickens and the soil. By delaying the chickens’ arrival, we give time for larvae and bugs to develop in the cow patties, which the chickens absolutely love. They will scratch them down and help with spreading out the manure to avoid having too many nutrients concentrated in a small area.
Up till now we didn’t have a way to move the birds around as part of this process, but the chicken tractor provides the missing link. I could go on and on about the benefits of this amazing soil building routine, but this is a post about the construction of the coop, so let’s begin!
We plan on housing between 40-60 hens, so this coop is made to be 6’ wide by 8’ long for a total of just under 48 sq. ft. inside. The base is constructed out of 2x4s to provide some rigidity while still being mindful of weight.
The floor of the coop has 1.5” welded wire that is small enough that the chickens can comfortably walk on it but large enough that their droppings fall right through and there’s no build up. This allows us the ability to target areas of our pasture that need extra nutrients by parking the birds there overnight.
Centered every foot we put a perch built out of 2x2s so there’s enough space on them to roost comfortably. The height in the coop is 24” so there’s a little head space for them, but it’s really meant for them to lay eggs in and sleep in – we want them out on the pasture during the day fertilizing and helping distribute nutrients, not loafing around inside.
Outside of the corners, the remainder of the coop is built out of 2x2s to help keep the overall weight of the structure down. This will all get wrapped in either the same mesh as the floor or sheeting.
This is the front of the coop – the braces in the middle are the frame for the door that will also serve as a ramp for the birds to get into the coop.
The back of the coop, is where the access to the nesting boxes will be. The brace going across is positioned so it’s just large enough to slide a standard milk crate through, which will serve as the nesting box.
With 2×2 construction, I was quite concerned about the coop being flimsy so we did our best to brace it in all directions where possible. You can see the cross brace going from the lower back corner to the front upper corner – this is a crucial step in providing the structure enough strength to be moved around daily.
This contraption is what the nesting boxes are going to sit on. There is a swivel bar that comes up to 90 degrees to block the chickens from going into the boxes at night – this needs to be put up/down manually in the mornings and evenings. While this is a little extra work, keeping the chickens out of the boxes at night is paramount for keeping eggs clean. If they sleep in the boxes, they’ll poop and any eggs laid in there will need to be washed, which is a real pain when you have many other things to do on the homestead.
Next we’ll talk about the axle. I couldn’t find any kind of strap that I thought would hold our axle to the bottom of the frame, so I decided to drill holes near the bottom of the board and feed it all the way through. A threaded 5/8” steel rod was used. We placed the axle about 15 inches off centre towards the back of the coop – this allows the bulk of the weight to be on the wheels and lifting the front of it is not too difficult.
To hold the axle in place, we used some washers and nuts placed throughout the frame to keep things tight and consistent. The wheels were purchased from a local farm store – they’re typically used for dump carts but they work great in this capacity. We wanted to have the coop high enough off the ground so that the birds could go under it for shade or to get away from any aerial predators.
This is on the underside of the frame at the front – these are legs to support the front of the coop, just under where the door will go.
The door/ramp to the coop is made out of OSB (I didn’t have a piece of plywood big enough so will likely have to replace in a year or two), with some cleats on the backside to help the birds into the coop. When closed, there are bolt locks on either side to keep birds in and unwanted animals out!
As mentioned previously, we used the same wire as the floor on the front third of the coop, and the remainder we wrapped in pieces of poly-carbonate we had left over from our passive solar greenhouse build. Initially, we were going to use scrap tin but it would’ve looked terrible, so this way the birds get some nice views and are able to watch the sunsets and sunrises from the comfort of their perches. I didn’t take enough photos in this part but you can see here the four nesting boxes are in place and the frame for the roof of the coop is sitting on top.
It was important for us to have access from the roof if we ever need to clean or catch a bird, so the roof is hinged on the back to allow for this. There is also about 4” of overhang on the back to keep the elements off the nesting boxes while still making them accessible.
The last component of the build was the handle for hauling. We used 2x4s secured to the front legs with some more of the 5/8” steel rod for the handle. In the future we may put on a different handle if we’re finding it’s hard on the hands to move.
Overall we’re really happy with how things turned out and are very excited for the snow to melt and to get the ladies working even harder for us out on the pasture.