It has been just about a year since the girl brought home six little fuzz balls in a box and told me that I had six weeks to build them a home. So I bet right about now some of you out there are about to be in the same boat. If you are like me then you will probably surf the net first to get some ideas before starting on your project. And I hope this description of our tractor will help you out.
Since we were starting with six birds and did not have an obvious location for a permanent coop picked out, the mobility of a chicken tractor, or chicken ark as they are also known, made the most sense. We have several acres of pasture to move them around in, but you don't need anywhere near that space. We tend to keep the tractor near the barn. At first this was because we were worried about the birds, but now it is more about convenience.
After looking at a lot of pictures online (FYI, the Backyard Chickens website is a great place to start), I decided to build an A-frame structure. It maximizes the amount of ground the tractor covers for the weight and triangles are really sturdy. I had a small stack of treated 6' 1x4s on the wood pile so that determined the height and width. I did not bother drawing up any plans. That is the way I tend to attack projects like this. I get so many ideas along the way that other than a few basic sketches it is easier for me to jump in and then work out the details. (Note: This technique is not recommended for everyone. If you want to draw up detailed plans, by all means break out the graph paper. If you have no earthly idea how to begin, please buy some plans or hire a carpenter!)
Our tractor is built like the roof on a house. I started by building 4 triangular trusses 6 ft on a side. To do this I laid the sides pieces down so the tops were touching and the bottoms were 6' apart. I then cut an angle at the top so they join together. I also cut a notch on one side of the joint for a ridge pole that runs the length of the tractor. The bottom board I laid on top of the two sides, raised up an inch from the ends of the side boards to allow for ground clearance. Everything was glued and screwed together. Then one by one I stood the trusses up and fit the 10' 1x4" ridge pole into the notch at the top.
The next step was to secure ten foot boards along the bottom of the sides. Halfway up I used 12 foot boards so they would stick out at the front of the tractor to make the handles. Now I had the skeleton of the structure and could really see how it was going to turn out. The sides were then covered in hardware cloth except for the hen house. This was by far the most expensive part of the project, but it makes it very secure and the wire is so sturdy that it acts as a structural element as well. You could also try a combination of chicken wire and livestock fencing. This depends on what sorts of predators you expect to have coming after your birds. One thing that I did not do but you might consider is putting livestock fencing on the bottom of the tractor. This would make it even more secure while still allowing the birds to get at the ground.
The hen house and the door are all made from some old plywood I had left from another project. We painted the outside to protect it a bit, but not the inside because we had read that the chickens would peck at the paint and get sick. The real find was the old tin roofing that I found under the barn. Originally I had covered the hen house and then added a single piece over the peak of the roof. I later added another piece onto each side to provide more shelter from the rain.
The floor area of the henhouse is 4'x4', and has two nesting boxes that hang off the back (a 12"x24" box divided into two sides). The henhouse is well ventilated and not insulated (we are in eastern NC). The flooring is made of hardware cloth to increase ventilation and prevent overheating in the summer. During the winter, we have a thin sheet of scrap plywood that slides in and covers the floor, which we then cover with wood shavings. We started off using hay in the nesting boxes but the hens kept pulling it out (and/or eating it) so we experimented and switched to a few good inches of wood shavings. It worked, and they leave it alone. The shavings also seem to make the nesting boxes easier to clean out when needed.
For all the doors, it is important to have secure latches. There are some clever chicken-eating critters out there so don't underestimate them. I used latches like you would for a padlock and added snap hooks. It is a good idea to tie a short piece of line to the snaps and attach them to the tractor for when you drop them while collecting eggs in the dark.
Moving the tractor is something you are going to have to do every couple of days so you want to put some thought in to it. If you have a smaller, lighter tractor you could probably drag it around or two people could pick it up and move it.
Ours kept getting heavier and heavier as the building process proceeded. Honestly it turned out a lot bigger then I had imagined before starting, but it is easy enough to move around with the small wheels mounted at the back (we found ours at Harbor Freight). If you have a rougher lawn or pasture, you may need to use larger, pneumatic tires. These would roll better than the small ones but you would have to take them off every time you move.
Next week there are going to be another round of fuzz balls moving into the brooder in the living room. That means it is time for me to start working on a new coop. I figure I have six weeks to get it built before the girl will be shopping for chicken diapers for our new housemates...