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The name "chicken tractor" is somewhat misleading, since no conventional motorized devices are used. A chicken tractor is little more than an open-bottom cage for chickens, which is light enough to be moved on the ground from location to another.
The chickens live in the chicken tractor and scratch, eat, and defecate on the ground surface. This process turns over the shallow surface, hence the 'tractor' reference. As the surface is sufficiently worked by the chickens, the tractor is moved to another space, repeating the process. The consumption of plants, seeds, and insects reduces plant growth and insect population, and the defecation nourishes the soil. Conventional chicken houses produce a volume of chicken waste with very high Nitrate concentration, which will burn many plants if used directly and therefore must be composted. The chicken tractor eliminates these handling and processing needs.
A chicken tractor will work on any flat surface with a substrate that supports plants and insects. Its main benefits are that it is a means of having free-range chickens and its attended benefits, but with better control/protection of the chickens. Moving it around permits more localized vegetation management, and keeps chickens out of gardens.
A chicken tractor can be of any design, materials, or size, as long as it is secure and movable by as few persons as reasonable. Typically it is either a box or a triangular "tent" shape. Skids or wheels, and handles can be attached for movement. Wood and wire screen are the most common materials. Sturdy plant materials such as reeds, stems, palm fronds, or branches can be used. An enclosed area for weather protection and roosting is included, and nest boxes for layers should be part of the construction. There are many possible designs and models, for construction suggestions see Chicken Tractor (Optimized Construction and Design).
A chicken tractor is low-tech and can be used in a wide range of locations, situations, and cultures. The chicken tractor can be used to keep the chickens in at all times in situations where no other enclosure is available, or it can be used in a larger fenced area. Predation is typically greatly reduced.
Lee, A., and P. Foreman. 1999. Chicken Tractor--the permaculture guide to happy hens and healthy soil. Good Earth Publ. 318 pp. ISBN 0-9624648-6-4.
Many other websites.
The City Chicken: more than 140 photos of chicken tractors.