Despite all the advantages of chicken tractors, there are some potential problems.
The first problem is that if you live on loose, sandy soil, predators can dig under them (we have more about this in a previous article, along with suggestions as to how to deal with the problem).
The second problem has to do with the challenges of design and construction.
Chicken Tractor Design Challenges
To make a good chicken tractor, you want it to be light enough that you can move it easily, but also sturdy and heavy enough to maintain good contact with the soil.
You want it to be large enough to hold your flock, yet not so large that it becomes unwieldy to move, or too bulky to put into places where you want to keep your chickens.
How (Not) to Build a Chicken Tractor
Most chicken tractors that I’ve made, used or seen were constructed from wood with attached poultry mesh or hardware cloth. Some or most of the top of the coop was covered by some sort of material that would shed water and give protection against rain and sun.
I’ve built and used quite a few of these types of coops over the last two decades. They work fairly well for a while, but they don’t last.
Poultry net from hardware or building supply stores is not what it used to be 20 or 30 years ago. It is thin. Though galvanized, it rusts quickly and weakens, and it needs to be replaced or repaired every few years, if not sooner.
The chicken tractor’s wood frame decays from ongoing contact with the soil, and the joints that hold the coop together loosen up at least in part because of the stress that is placed on the coop from being moved frequently.
Some of the best small-flock-sized chicken tractors that our family has made have lasted maybe 8-10 years, but by the end of that time, they’ve been repaired a number of times and are in pretty rough shape.
Why? Because the frame is no longer structurally sound. You can patch the frame for a while, but once the frame starts to lose its structural integrity you can’t really keep repairing the coop — it’s time to build another one.
PVC Chicken Tractors (Not Recommended)
Another approach is PVC-framed chicken tractors.
After seeing various PVC coops that other people have built, I’ve experimented with those some myself. I’ve used a hoop-style PVC coop, covered with hexagonal poultry mesh and a tarp, and I’ve built a rectangular PVC chicken tractor, consisting mainly of thicker PVC with poultry mesh attached.
The nice thing about PVC coops is that they’re easy to put together.
The not so nice thing about them is they don’t last. That is, the frames don’t last. Not even as well as wood coops. And when the PVC frame starts to deteriorate and break it’s time to replace the coop.
In my opinion, it’s a lot easier to repair frame damage in a wooden-framed chicken tractor than a PVC chicken tractor, and even though the wooden frames don’t last forever, they last longer than PVC frames.
PVC coops are also somewhat flimsy. And if you use a conventional tarp to cover them, it will decay in the sunlight. Thick canvas fabric lasts longer than a tarp, but it, too, is a temporary solution that also eventually disintegrates.
Some people have used billboard covers, which are made from a woven, reinforced type of fabric that is sealed to keep out water. These work better, and depending on the thickness and quality of the cover (they come in different thicknesses), they can last for up to three years, possibly longer.
Some people use larger diameter PVC to build large chicken tractors, particularly large, hoop style coops. We have used some of these on the farm, and they’ve worked well for awhile. They last longer than smaller backyard-flock-sized PVC chicken tractors, but eventually, they break down from heat, sunlight and the stress of the wind and of moving them regularly.
Plastic electrical conduit (the gray kind) that has been UV-protected is another option that you could pursue. I don’t have any direct experience with it for chicken tractors.
Other Approaches for Chicken Tractors Frames
After trying a number of different designs (rectangular, A-frame, hoop-style) and a number of different construction materials (wood, PVC, poultry mesh, hardware cloth, tarp and canvas), I started to wonder: how do you build a chicken tractor that will last? Is wood the right material for the frame?
Maybe, and maybe not.
If you build a chicken tractor using rot-resistant hardwoods and quality joinery, like the timber-frame barns that once graced much of America’s countryside — only on a much smaller scale — then they would probably last.
But if you’re like me and plan to salvage pine lumber or get lumber from a local home improvement store or lumberyard and fasten it together with screws, nails and/or glue, using mainly butt joints, then you’ll likely have similar results — a frame that with some repairs lasts maybe 8-10 years at most.
What about the mesh that we need to cover the frame with? For that, I think galvanized poultry net is the wrong solution. It simply doesn’t last. So far, I’ve had the best results with a PVC-coated (green) hardware cloth. I’m getting 3 years of use from it with no obvious signs of distress, except in places where it’s getting flexed or stressed regularly. FarmTek carries a PVC-coated hex wire that might be worth experimenting with.
Preferred Chicken Tractor Design
My preferred design at this point is a welded, metal-frame chicken tractor, with durable siding, roof and mesh.
Though most people won’t have the equipment and skills to easily make these at home, I think they are well worth the investment. In terms of durability, I think these types of chicken tractors will outlast any other design that I’ve seen.
There’s simply not much that can go wrong with them.
Where can you get such a coop? My son has built the ones that we’ve used. He’s currently working on other projects, but if you are interested in having one built, contact us, and we’ll see what we can do. You could also draw something up and get it built by a local welder.
The frame is made from square, tubular steel — both strong and lightweight. The joints are welded, and won’t loosen over time. The best finish has proven to be powder coating. Expensive initially, but it holds up. Metal frames that we’ve painted ourselves just don’t hold up nearly as well.
The mesh is made of “expanded metal,” which is a thin plate steel that has been spread out uniformly to have diamond-shaped openings to let air and light through. It’s the kind of material that’s often used for commercial metal steps or heavy-duty grilling surfaces, and it’s quite tough.
For the roof, depending on the coop, he uses galvalume, aluminum or steel, and for the sides, he uses either those materials or exterior siding.
By being careful with his choice of materials, he’s been able to make a coop that I (very conservatively) think will outlast a wooden-frame chicken tractor by at least a factor of 3 to 1 and that should be nearly trouble-free.
The biggest downside I’ve had with metal frame chicken tractors is that it’s not easy to modify them yourself. If you decide you want to add another roost or expand the coop by adding on another section or adding an external nest box, there’s not a simple way to do this without having some welding skills.
Anyone else trying metal frame chicken tractor designs? We would be interested in hearing what’s worked (or not worked) for you.