By Kim Buddington
At On The Road Again Farm in Massachusetts, the first thing you’d probably notice as you walk out the door at the back of the classic red barn is a sleek herd of dairy goats, grazing in the shadows of Wilbraham Mountain. Alpine and Oberhasli dairy goats are the primary enterprise of this small family farm, and they are a wonderful fit for the land.
During a recent trip to western Mass. over Easter weekend, we had the pleasure of spending some time at On The Road Again Farm. We got to chat with farm owner/manager, Nancy Buddington about another new and exciting project she has going on, in addition to the goats.
As we walked through the pasture, Nancy introduced us to her flock of chickens, which live in a special mobile coop, known as a chicken tractor.
So what’s the buzz about chicken tractors? Maybe you’ve read about them or even raise chickens in one yourself. For Nancy, she’d been interested in building a chicken tractor for a while, but the summer of 2018 was when the dream became a reality.
Thanks to the help of her good friend Mary Ellen, and her husband, John, construction was completed in August.
The tractor has a special place in the overall management plan of the farm, and we asked Nancy to share what that entailed.
“I was inspired to build a chicken tractor as part of our parasite management plan,” Nancy said.
She went on to explain how the farm uses an Integrated Parasite Control or IPC plan to tackle the issue of and prevent symptoms of parasitic disease in their goat herd. One of the primary goals of an IPC plan is to reduce the amount of chemical deworming drugs used, as parasite resistance to such drugs is a huge problem. Pharmaceutical solutions should be a last resort, so producers must use other methods of attack first.
Yep, this is where the birds come in. Citing information provided by the Northeast Small Ruminant Parasite Control Consortium, Nancy detailed how chickens can come to the rescue.
“Specifically grazing different species on your pastures can break the parasite cycle,” She said. “Each host species is a “vacuum cleaner” for the parasite larvae of other hosts.”
With living in mobile housing, the laying hens can move around the goat pastures at regular intervals. Bad news for worm larvae, good news for everyone else! Not only do the chickens help reduce parasite problems, but their manure and natural behaviors of pecking and scratching, benefit the health of the pasture and soil as well.
As a student in the UMASS Stockbridge School of Agriculture, Sustainable Food & Farming program, Nancy took a poultry production class to enhance her knowledge of raising pastured chickens so she would be well prepared to dive into her new enterprise.
Interested In Building a Chicken Tractor?
There is no shortage of information out there on the internet when it comes to going about building a mobile coop. “Google chicken tractor and you will be overwhelmed with various chicken tractor ideas,” Nancy cautioned.
She finally settled on building plans from the University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service. A vital component of the tractor that can be difficult to obtain are retractable wheels. However, there is a company that specializes in making them, and they can be ordered online.
How much money should you budget for building your chicken tractor? Nancy’s coop cost her approximately $600 from start to finish. This figure includes the retractable wheel kit and extra hardware cloth that they decided to cover the coop with to help ward off predators. It’s a bit of an investment to get started or make the switch, but the benefits of housing birds in a chicken tractor are worth it.
Nancy pointed out that for the wellbeing of the chickens, it’s a win-win situation. The flock reaps all of the same benefits that chickens raised in a free-range system would- such as a diverse and fresh variety of plant material, worms, and tasty bugs for them to feed on. Because they stay within the tractor, they have much more protection against predators than they obviously would just being out in the open.
A chicken tractor can also save labor, as there is no fixed housing that needs to be cleaned and bedded frequently. Because the birds are pastured, you may also see a decrease in your feed bill, which is always lovely! When using a chicken tractor, it is essential to establish, and stick to, a regular schedule of moving.
With the design of Nancy’s coop, it is possible for one person to move solo, and no heavy machinery is required. This every other day affair takes about ten minutes, and thirty minutes if the electric fencing that encircles the tractor needs to be rotated as well. She does usually recruit the help of John, every four days when the fencing gets moved. As always, many hands make light work.
“You need to be watching the weight of your tractor,” Nancy said. “You want it to be heavy enough so that a predator or the wind can’t pick it up. But you don’t want it so heavy you need heavy equipment to move it.”
Ease of movement is one of the most important factors to keep in mind if you are thinking of constructing a mobile coop. Nancy explained that although the plans she used suggested the use of 2 X 6 pressure treated lumber in the base of the frame, she opted to use 2 X 4 lumber instead, simply to keep the weight under control.
The pastured poultry and chicken tractor project at On The Road Again Farm has been and continues to be a learning experience.
If she were to make another chicken tractor, one thing Nancy would do differently would be to make some alterations that would make overwintering the birds easier. On the existing coop, it is hard to tack up additional plastic on the ends to keep the harsh New England winter weather out. The majority of the frame is fashioned out of wire stock panels, so adding a little extra wood to the ends would help remedy the issue.
Have they started to see a payoff from using the chicken tractor? “The fertility of the pasture is definitely improved and obvious,” Nancy stated.
The tractor hasn’t even been in use for a year yet, but the pasture is much greener in the spots where the tractor and birds have spent time. As far as the impact on parasite loads, she said that more time is needed to see tangible results. Again, the coop has only been in use since last August.
Since the farm has internship opportunities for interested individuals, Nancy added that quantifying the impact on parasites would make for a fantastic student project in the future.
Raising poultry in a chicken tractor is fun and can help enhance your connection with nature. With some research and a small investment, you too can be well on your way to discovering the joys of raising pastured poultry.
Chicken Tractor Resource Library
Below are some books and other resources that Nancy used and recommends to anyone interested in raising pastured poultry.
The Small-Scale Poultry Flock- By Harvey Ussery- This book is a great comprehensive guide to general poultry management, with an emphasis on using natural methods to raise birds. The Small-Scale Poultry Flock is available for purchase in print or digital versions on Amazon.com.
Pastured Poultry Profits- By Joel Salatin– A must have book for anyone wanting to raise pastured poultry. Joel shares a wealth of knowledge and first-hand experience that can be especially useful for those who plan to have a large flock. This book is also available in digital or print format and can be purchased on Amazon.com.
Making a Hoop Pen for Pasture Poultry– These are the building plans Nancy used for the tractor. She recommends this plan because it includes good diagrams and complete supply lists.http://www2.ca.uky.edu/agcomm/pubs/ASC/ASC189/ASC189.pdf COOPERATIVE EXTENSION SERVICE • UNIVERSITY OF KENTUCKY COLLEGE OF AGRICULTURE, LEXINGTON, KY , 40546.
Wellscroft Fence Systems, LLC- This New Hampshire company is where she purchased the electric net fencing and solar charger for surrounding the chicken tractor. If you’d like training in getting started with electric net type fencing, Wellscroft even offers periodic workshops on the topic. https://www.wellscroft.com
Chickencoopwheels.com This is the best source for retractable coop wheels You can order them here