If you have a small farm or market garden you might be interested in a cheap way to fight weeds, fertilize the soil, and increase crop yields. Some people call it a chicken tractor even though it doesn’t have the engine that a normal tractor has. Instead it’s a bottomless cage that you can move around your garden. Inside are some chickens. They peck at the ground, eating up weeds and insect pests. They get plenty of sunlight and fresh air. And their manure helps to fertilize the soil, replacing nutrients so that the next crop will grow strong and healthy.
Build the pen First you have to build a pen with four sides and a roof but no floor. It should have a light wooden frame, wire mesh sides, and a solid roof. The size depends on how many chickens you want to keep in it, but a general rule is that each small chicken will need about half a square metre of scratching space. A larger, older hen will need about twice as much room – one square metre.
Make the pen big enough so the chickens are not over?crowded in the pen. If they are too crowded they will be more likely to get sick, peck each other, or even eat each other.
Do not use heavy wood for the frame because this will make the tractor difficult to move around your garden. If it rains a lot where you live, you might want to coat the wood with something that will keep it from rotting in the damp weather.
The mesh you use for the sides of the cage should have holes that are only two square centimetres or less in size. Mesh with larger holes may allow small chicks to get out or let animals such as weasels reach in to harm the chickens. You can use wire mesh or make the sides out of woven bamboo or grass.
The mesh sides allow the chickens to get plenty of sunlight and fresh air without letting them wander away and without letting other animals or predatory birds get at them. The top of the pen should be solid to protect the chickens from rain or too much sunlight. You can cover it with roofing tin, or light wood, or with heavy cloth that is waterproof.
Using the pen Place the pen in the garden. Of course you must not put the chicken pen over any food crops you are growing. It should only go on land that is not being used for crops during this season.
The chickens will scratch and peck at the ground, eating small weeds and insects and helping to till the soil. Be sure that the chickens always have food and water available. You may want to give them some extra feed such as kitchen scraps or vegetable scraps from the garden. Hang water bowls or feeder bowls inside the cage, high enough that they are not touching the ground but low enough that all the chickens can reach them.
Every day or every second day move the pen to another spot in your garden. This way the chickens will not drop too much manure and will get fresh vegetation to graze.
You can eat the eggs from your chickens or hatch and raise them as chicks to be the next generation of chickens. If you raise more chickens than your family can eat you can sell them to your friends and neighbours or at the local market.
Chickens are not the only kind of livestock you can use this way. You can use turkeys and other small animals up to and including pigs. Just remember that the larger the animal, the larger the pen you will need to build and the more land you will need to have available.
This script was written by Victoria Wilcox, a writer with the radio division of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), Toronto, Canada. It was reviewed by Patricia Foreman and Andy Lee, Good Earth Publications, North Carolina, U.S.A. All graphics are from the book Chicken Tractor by Andy Lee.
Chicken tractor: the gardener’s guide to happy hens and healthy soil, 1994, Andy Lee, 230 pages, $US 14.95. Good Earth Publications, P.O. Box 160, Columbus, N.C., U.S.A. 05482. Tel./fax: (704) 863?2288.