For plots too small to allow a permanent run for chickens, an ark or chicken tractor provides a practical way to keep moving the chickens to fresh ground. Chicken tractors are sometimes recommended for clearing ground, particularly in the context of permaculture, but in practice chickens cannot cultivate the earth deeply enough to disturb the roots of perennials. This means that chicken tractors are better seen as a way to provide the birds with fresh ground when free ranging is not practical.
What is a chicken tractor?
The term ‘chicken tractor’ is used to describe a small-scale, lightweight chicken house with an integral enclosed run. In the UK this housing style is more usually called an ‘ark’. The house and run should be light enough to be dragged from one spot to another, giving the chickens access to fresh forage. This mimics the feed patterns of free range birds, without letting them range freely.
The chicken tractor in permaculture
The concept of the chicken tractor was introduced by Bill Mollinson as an illustration of the principles of their ‘permanent agriculture’ system, which became known as ‘permaculture’. Permaculture is characterised by each element providing more than one output, and having its own needs met in more than one way. The theory embodies the principles of permaculture beautifully. The chickens are able to supplement their feed by foraging for bugs, worms and plant material, and in return their scratching ‘weed control’ behaviour is seen an output, as are their eggs.
Bill Mollinson does use the concept of chicken tractoring effectively at his farm in Tagari, New South Wales, but not the housing design that has become associated with the phrase. At Tagari, workers clear one bed at a time by fencing it with chicken wire and adding a regular chicken coop, effectively making the whole bed into a permanent run for months at a time. Armfuls of straw or roughly-chopped vegetation are added for the chickens to turn over, starving perennial weeds of light, and in the subtropical conditions this soon rots down.
Problems with chicken tractors
Unlike pigs, deep digging is not part of chickens’ normal behaviour, except for making dust baths. Although they will eventually graze an area down to bare soil chickens can be quite selective about which plants they will eat. They also don’t scratch deeply enough to disturb perennials with substantial root systems, like dandelions and couch grass. Once the tractor is moved to fresh ground, perennial growth will appear again within a few weeks making further action necessary.
Chickens in tractors which are moved frequently have more to do than birds kept caged in a similar area, but as with any caged system you have to watch out for signs of behavioural stress like bullying or feather pecking.
Benefits of chicken tractors
Moving the chickens every two weeks gives the ground time to recover, and breaks the life cycle of internal pests that can otherwise build up in the soil and reinfect the birds. It also gives them a more varied diet that mimics that of free range birds, resulting in lower feed bills and better tasting eggs with bright yellow yolks.
Chicken tractor type houses are inexpensive to buy and easy to make, and can usually be dragged from one spot to another by one person. Since the birds are never out in the open they are less vulnerable to predators like foxes, and if you discover that something has started to dig under the run during the night you can simply pull the house to a new location.