In an ideal world we would let our chickens free-range all year round, and we’re sure they would appreciate us for this. However what do you do during the winter, when predators such as foxes are desperate and will risk an attack during the daytime?
You could just keep your chickens in a coop and pen during winter but we found this affects their egg laying… massively. This is why we decided to use a chicken tractor and the girls rewarded us by increasingly their egg laying!
Note: If you are looking at making your own pen and need to work out how big it needs to be, read How Much Room Do Chickens Need.
Not heard of a chicken tractor before or wondering how to use one? Let’s get straight into this week’s article.
What Is a Chicken Tractor?
First of all for those of you who haven’t heard of a chicken tractor before, you are probably wondering what exactly is a chicken tractor?
A chicken tractor is a portable pen which you can move around your garden to provide your chickens with a constant fresh supply of grass.
Chicken tractors are normally just dragged across the garden; however you can get ‘fancier’ tractors which have wheels on to make them easier to pull!
At this point you’re probably wondering how is this any different to my regular chicken pen.
Chicken Tractor Vs Chicken Pen
The biggest difference between a chicken tractor and a chicken pen is that a chicken pen isn’t portable – a pen is attached to the side of your chicken coop.
A pen tends to be more secure because it’s a permanent structure and you can bury the chicken wire down into the ground to stop predators digging underneath the pen.
However the downside of the pen is, because it’s a permanent structure you will probably find your chickens eat all the grass in their pen and leave it just dirt. Unless you provide your chickens with a large pen this will always happen and for most backyard chicken keepers, we don’t have the space to extend the pen.
This is where the chicken tractor comes in. Because chicken tractors are very mobile, it means you can move them around when your girls have cleared a patch of land. This means they get access to fresh grass and different areas of your garden which stops them from overgrazing any one particular section of your garden.
It also stops them from eating things they aren’t supposed to… i.e. seeds you’ve planted, vegetables and flowers!
Our Experiment with Chicken Tractors
So let’s now talk about how using chicken tractors made our chickens lay more eggs.
We still remember fencing off their pen when we first got our chickens at around 18 weeks old. We started with six chickens and they had a pen roughly 15×8 foot.
Throughout the summer, our girls free ranged in the garden. However during the winter we kept them in the pen- because we were worried about foxes attacking them (they get desperate during the winter and will attack in daylight if necessary).
The summer was fantastic and our girls were laying really well, then winter was coming round so it was time to place the girls back in their pen.
Within a month our girls had completely wiped out the grass and it was turning into a mud bath in the middle of December!
Hmmm. Not ideal…
We extended the pen by another 15×8 foot and again by the end of January their entire pen was just dirt – and worse yet the grass didn’t ever get time to recover because the chickens were always there.
During this winter their egg laying plummeted- granted the amount of eggs they laid should reduce anyway during the winter, but it was literally off the spectrum.
We think the problem was because they had eaten all the grass, they only had dirt to scrat around in and they clearly didn’t like this and it unsettled them. If we would have used a chicken tractor back then we could have moved our chickens around the various patches of grass, this would have allowed the unused grass to recover and grow back.
We had a dilemma, we are happy for our chickens to roam anywhere in the garden, but during the winter they need to be secure due to the risk of them getting attacked. We can’t place chicken wire around the edge of our entire garden (it would look like a prison!) and the size of their current pen wasn’t big enough because they turned it into a mud bath!
So the following winter we decided to try instead and use a chicken tractor.
Our plan was to keep the girls in their coop overnight to roost and then during the day we would put them in the tractor. The tractor would be moved each week- to stop them overgrazing any one particular area.
One unexpected side effects of this was that although their egg production slowed down during the winter, they still laid far more eggs than the previous winter!
However the eggs were slightly dirty- not to worry because we just followed the guide How To Store Your Chickens’ Freshly Laid Eggs.
We’ve since been using the tractor for several winters since then and seen great things happen. Some of our friends came over and wanted to know how we used the tractor so we wrote them a list of things we do- so we thought we’d share them with you too!
Chickens Lay More Eggs When They Eat Healthily
Grass is good for chickens. So using a tractor naturally benefits our laying hens in their production departments.
We noticed our eggs change when our hens had access to the grass under the tractor year-round. The yolks became darker, and tasted better!
Because grass meets our hens’ protein requirements, their production spiked! In fact, a chicken’s daily nutrient requirement is one-quarter of the way fulfilled just by eating grass. Not to mention the vitamins and minerals they also get from eating the greens (E, C, and Iron).
Implementing the chicken tractors in our poultry-raising routine allowed our hens to eat a more natural diet, consisting of high-value greens.
How We Use a Chicken Tractor
Winter Use: The first thing to remember is, we only use the tractor during the winter to keep them safe.
Keep the Coop: In the evening we push the tractor back over to their coop and they roost in there at night.
Make Sure You Rotate It: Each week we move the tractor to a new place in the garden.
Protect Against Flooding: If certain areas of your garden are prone to flooding, make sure you place the tractor on higher ground.
Always move the tractor if the ground underneath it is bare.
You Need Flat Ground: Make sure you only use the tractor on flat ground. Bumpy ground is not ideal for tractors because it can leave gaps which the chickens might escape from.
Close It on Snow Days: On very harsh winter days, we keep the girls in their coop/pen. We think it would be too cold for them to be out in the snow.
Check for Eggs: Although we have a small nesting box at one end of the chicken tractor, some of the girls don’t like using it. So once you’ve moved the tractor check the grass to make sure there aren’t any hidden eggs!
Clean Up The Food: Whilst you are searching for any hidden eggs, make sure there isn’t any pellets or other food on the floor because this will attract pests such as mice.
Here is a great video I found showing what can happen to your grass without a chicken tractor!
Do I need a coop/pen with my chicken tractor?
When most people hear about chicken tractors, I think one of the first questions they think is- does this mean I don’t need a chicken coop anymore?
This really depends on the climate you live in and the bread of your chickens.
If you live in a warm climate all year round you could keep your girls in their tractor all year round (but we wouldn’t recommend it). However in colder climates chickens need the coop to keep warm during harsh winters.
Also, as a rule of thumb, only chickens grown for meat are kept in tractors all year long. Laying chickens need a substantial nesting box.We much prefer to keep our girls in their coop and like we previously mentioned, only use the tractor during the winter as a necessity.
So, are you going to try and use a chicken tractor now? Let us know about your experiences in the comments below.