Chicken Tractor

This is a Chicken Tractor (capitalisation required) and is just as cool as it sounds (a nice relative statement).

Chicken Tractor

I totally built it.

Which is a bit of a lie – significant help was given at different stages (big ups to Sara, Chris, Sven and, especially, Leen).

This is what the area looked like before any work started:

The pre-existing raised beds were pretty big and had been there for almost 10 years. Deconstructing them was really hard work (we saved as much of the wood as possible so we could re-use it in other parts of the garden). We had to move tons and tons (that is a very literal statement) of earth in order to clear the way. It was far harder and took far longer than I thought it would – this was the result:

The bed on the left was built using the reclaimed wood and is a long-term bed for such things as brassicas and potatoes and the like. We left a lot of the earth in place so we could essentially carve out the patterns of the chicken tractor beds, thus minimizing shovel work and so forth. It was a semi-successful idea.

The following photos show the rest of the construction:

Like the Marshall Plan, only cheaper.

Ugly but planting underway

(The huge pile of dirt in the distance is all the top soil from the previous beds. This would eventually go onto the new beds and other growing areas)

Not too pretty, but starting to take shape

There are many other in-process shots, but I’m sure you get the idea.

I built a second long-term bed further towards the garage, again using reclaimed wood:

These ancillary beds are planted with perennials like asparagus in the back two lots (companioned with tomatoes) with rotational crops in the front.

An interesting comparison is the building time. This bed took me a casual weekend, maybe 10 or 12 hours from scratch to finished. The chicken tractor gardens took roughly 4 months of part-time work, 3 days a week on average.
Now on to the money shots:
You can see the space between the two garden areas here, filled with composting and worm farm wonders.
The basic intent of the tractor is a rotational garden that is sustained by and sustains a population of chickens. The chicken run is lifted and transferred around the raised beds every 6 – 8 weeks, so the chooks can turn the soil, eat, shit and play (while shooting heaps of eggs out their fannies for we, their garden comrades) and replenish the soil. Basically it is designed to be a closed loop system – nothing needed from outside and no waste produced.
There’s heaps more. The amount of food this baby will yield will be staggering. Now that it’s complete and has been getting its act together it has become almost terrifying how fast everything is growing.
It was built on permaculture principles and is sustainable, organic and pretty bloody sensible.
The sunrise design of the beds is pretty cool, I think. The wooden sidings are untreated macrocarpa sleepers. Most other untreated timber would rot significantly within a few years but these sleepers will last for years and years and years. It’s worth mentioning that they are very heavy. Very, very heavy.
Each bed is 3.8 metres long and 1.2 metres wide. the length was dictated by the space available but the width is a good guide line for raised bed construction, basically enabling almost anyone, excluding the tragically short, to reach any point in the garden without having to step on it, thus compacting the soil.
Under each of the macrocarpa sleepers is a one foot deep trench filled with gravel; this is to retard rotting from the wood sitting in pools of water while also raising the water table under the beds themselves.
The spaces between the beds (wide enough for a wheelbarrow) are filled in with gravel, insuring it will drain well when it rains, feeding the trenches under the sleepers and supplying the gardens with plenty of rainwater. Also stops the place turning into a bog.
You can’t see my parents houseĀ  to the left of the gardens, but it’s very large with a huge roof area. I’m going to hook up a water collection tank from the roof which will ultimately feed the garden.
Also some grey water systems off the kitchen – but that’s another thing altogether.
There’s still a little more garden building to do – where the topsoil pile is is going to be a rock garden, I just have to move the remaining topsoil to another garden, on another property, I’m putting together. Plus a few fancy touches to make it ever so much prettier (I know, how can that be possible).
I can’t express how much time and work went into this, I have muscles and calluses that barely hint at it. It’s invisible now but in order to dig the trenches and make sure there was an adequate depth of soil under the beds I had to dig out 80-year-old compacted gravel from the old driveway. Apparently if gravel is left to its own devices it evolves into concrete.
It is quite a remarkable thing for me to look at and think, I did that. This was all done at my parents’ house (and was financed by them – at least the materials, I did the work for free) in an effort to put into practice some of the things I had learned while getting my Permaculure Design Certificate in February ’09. Permaculture is, and the course I took in it was, an amazing thing I’m deeply glad I got involved in, also something I recommend to anyone curious about it. I’ve been meaning to write something about it for ages but have been daunted by the scale of it in my head; I’m sure I’ll get there in the end though.
I’m quite proud of this whole thing.

30 responses to “Chicken Tractor

  1. Good on you, Lemony! Very impressed. :-)

  2. These are beautiful, I will show them to my Mum when am home – we keep chickens, though not in such splendor.

    Went to a lecture on vertical gardening (don’t ask, it wasn’t intentional), remarkably interesting even to a black-thumbed type like myself.

  3. This is fabulous! Very, very impressive. I want one.
    Do the chickens have access only to the garden covered by the tractor or are they free to roam in and out?
    Do you think you will be able to sustain the chooks on the garden in winter or will they need corn then?
    Your folks must be very happy.

  4. I want one! How much back rent do you owe me?

  5. Far out bro, this is tumeke. Do I get to skite here that I have tasted the fruits of your labour?

    I didn’t know that the plural for fanny was fannies. But I like it. Them. Whatever.

  6. Yes! Beautiful

  7. This is fantastic work. Had to have another look, well done. Makes you some sort of chicken magnet, I guess…

  8. Now that you have had them for a year, I must ask what you have or haven’t had to change. We are in Washington and have stumbled upon your photos, We are curious if the fresh chicken poop has “burned” the garden? Or do you only have them over one garden bed for a week so this doesn’t happen? Also do your chicks eat most of your leaves from the garden? Did your vegetables survive?

    • Hi Candice,

      Sorry for the slow reply – I don’t live at the property where the chicken tractor is, so I had to have a catch up with my mother about it when I visited. Plus I’m often lazy.

      The chickens totally destroy anything and everything leafy in the garden within a couple of weeks. We put in a lot of other vegetable matter from various other gardens around the property to keep them occupied. We replant the garden totally once we move them to the next bed – which was always the plan – they really leave nothing behind, including insects and so forth.

      The soil is fine after the first year – better, in fact; rich and healthy without any ill effect or ‘burning’. Based on research and questioning other people, we had intended to move the tractor every six weeks, but now it gets moved every four weeks or so. It varies depending on the season (greater growth means a longer stay) and the different things planted. Plus factors like how much sun certain beds are getting in deep winter.

      We’re just heading into spring here and the garden is really starting to grow like crazy. When I’m back there over Christmas (which is early summer, here) I’ll take some more photos and post them online so people can see the how it’s going.

      In terms of what has changed, not much, really. Nothing physical at least. Any change has come down to timing, planting and keeping the chooks happy. I’ll likely have to adjust the chicken run a bit in a few months, as the frames are bending a bit from the lifting – but it’s actually been almost two years, so that’s pretty good I think.

      Hope that answers your questions – feel free to ask any more, i’m happy to answer them (speed isn’t my strongest virtue, but I will get to it).

      • I check back often, my husband and i live in city limits, but feel this is something we could do with 3 chickens, last night we were out measuring how big to make all of this, hoping to get started with the building part soon. Any extra advice?

  9. what a wonderful find! I’m so impressed on the stacking order that took place with your chicken tractor!!! awesome!

  10. this is an awsome find! what a terrific idea for chickens to forage in a stacking concept! just wondering how the coop look like in the inside? can you show some pics?

  11. You mention other plans early on in the blog, I was curious what was your research approach before planning this out and executing? It is March here, so I have a couple months . . . and a nice large raised bed that has been in the ground for about 15 years who’s time has come . . . any info at all regarding source information, planning would be greatly appreciated!!! Thank You.

    • hi kristin,
      sorry for the slow reply. i had completed a permaculture course thing a short while before embarking on this, so i had various photocopied things from that (i have no idea where those photo copies came from) but the most valuable source of information i had was from a few friends who had been on the same course, plus one or two others, who i brainstormed with on design. in terms of research i can trace, i used Bill Mollison’s ‘Introduction to Permaculture’ for amazing information on the principles involved, as well as David Holmgren’s ‘Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability’. these books are focussed on much wider sustainability building issues, but there were some amazing tidbits within them that helped me form good ideas. other than that i made sure to check books and people with knowledge of local NZ conditions and did a hell of a lot of googling. ultimately it came down to just sketching out designs and possibilities on paper and then doing my best to break them.

  12. Doug Leveridge

    Have been checking this wonderland of construction out again, with a view to adapting the principle for a new vege garden at the in-laws’ new place. Where did the macrocarpa come from?

    • hi doug! just saw david this morning, weirdly. hope things are good over there.

      i got the macrocarpa sleepers from goldpine on ngaumutawa rd. warning: it’s pricey – made me glad i wasn’t paying for it. but it’s great to work with because it doesn’t need to be treated with chemicals and lasts forever. i was looking at the garden the other day, it’s been in for two years now, and it shows absolutely no sign of degradation.

  13. Doug Leveridge

    Awesome, thanks for that Marcus. It’s all in the hands of the in-laws now, as dictated by their budget. They weren’t keen on the idea of putting in a chicken coop at this stage, either. Plan for backyard is to spray off lawn, put in three raised beds 2.5×1.4m x 450mm high, then lay filter fabric over existing ground and cover in crushed rock. Back of section has never been landscaped since house was built 4 yrs ago. Just rubbish fill material and some grass seed, so anything will be an improvement. Will also put in another two raised gardens for a weeping cherry and lemon, after digging out said crappy fill and putting decent topsoil and compost down.

    Loved the piece on finding the listening spot in bookshops, by the way.

  14. Very impressed

  15. Well done Lemony. I have read a lot about permaculture but hadn’t thought about the saving water under the sleepers. Love the tractor arrangement. How many chooks do they have? The full vege beds look awes too. Excellent mahi

    • thanks tel. it currently has three chickens, though has gone as high as four. three is about the best balance, as not much outside what the gardens produce is needed to feed them.

  16. Daniel from Oklahoma

    Lemony This is fantastic. I I am about to build raised beds And some chicken tractors. You got this okie thinking. Wow to combine the two is win win. I have a few questions.
    Does the gravel cover the entire raised bed underneath or just the surrounding border- you mentioned 1 foot deep?
    Also I was wondering how do you plan your crops To coincide with movements of the chickens? I wonder how soon you rotate the chickens to eat bed meaning that new bed where the chickens now reside will have to be harvested?

    I love the conceptual shape. Our home will overlook this and the sun spray pattern will be great to gaze upon while relaxing on our porch.

    • hi daniel,

      thanks! yep, the gravel is only below the pathways and the wooden sleepers, not under the beds themselves.
      the crop planting is dependent on seasonal concerns and the movement of the tractor/chickens. basically, once you put the tractor on a bed the chickens consume everything – absolutely everything. so that bed is always completely harvested first, then often replanted with something different, based on the estimated time-frame of the tractor making it’s next full rotation. that said, it’s easy enough to just skip a bed in the rotation if the bed isn’t ready. it’s also easy enough to keep the tractor on one bed longer by just throwing in pickings from other garden areas.
      all in all, it’s a good idea to plan your planting to match the movement of the tractor – and easy enough to do, once you’re got the hang of it – but there’s a decent amount of flexibility available based on your judgement.

      i love the shape as well – i still get the grins when i see it.

      • Daniel from Oklahoma

        Thanx for your reply. I get it now. And as there are plentiful beds to rotate with. Must be a kick to work the garden beds with curious chickens for company.
        Our covered deck overlooks the area where I. Will build this. Behind that is a sloped landscape down to lake Eufaula. This is perfect concept for a visual garden to gaze down upon. The rainwater will come off the house and deck to the gravel pathways and hopefully utilize this water very effectively, rather than running off and away.l. Thanx again for the share. Will send pics the completion by spring planting.

      • no problem at all – i’d love to see photos of the work you do.
        good luck!

  17. Never heard of a chicken tractor before I came across your blog from a sustainable living thread on a forum I was browsing.. what a fantastically, simple and amazing idea! It looks wonderful! What happy, healthy chickens! And I thought having a spacious chicken run and letting them roam free in the backyard was good… feeding them delicious fresh greens and letting them fertilise and scratch it up for you sounds so much better!

  18. Pingback: The coolest chicken tractor you will ever see | Farmgasm

  19. This is absolutely BRILLIANT! This is what I have been looking for to make my chickens/veggie garden compatible and low-labor. Thank you so much for sharing this!

  20. I love this idea. Thanx for sharing. I’m going to give it a shot :-)

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