Before telling you about our chicken tractor, I'd like to talk about the history of our farm and property. Swamp Creek Farm is the name of our portion of my family’s Century Farm. We are located in the Iron County Heritage Area near the Turtle Flambeau Flowage, half-way between the towns of Butternut and Mercer in northern Wisconsin. My great-grandfather acquired title to this land in 1892 under the Homestead Act of 1863. Our farm totals about 78 acres, mostly wooded. And our market garden spreads over about 3 acres.
Five years ago, when we left Chicago to build our house here, we decided to supplement my husband’s pension by raising heirloom and open-pollinated fruits and vegetables to sell at local farmers markets and from our farm. Our primary farm goal is to make enough money from various farm enterprises to pay our real estate taxes; any money earned beyond that is considered a bonus. Gardening was something we had done on a small, back yard scale for many years, and we felt we could translate those skills to our market garden. But how to increase soil fertility on acidic sandy loam soil without breaking the bank purchasing soil inputs was a dilemma. While my father had grown up on the farm, I had not, and living on a fixed income greatly limited our options. What could we do?
I remembered one of the cardinal rules of farming: Organic inputs that come on the farm, stay on the farm. And what kind of inputs do farmers have available to use? That’s right — animal manure. However, neither my husband nor I had any experience with raising livestock of any kind. After reading about raising different kinds of livestock, I decided to try raising chickens. They are small, and I didn’t think I would be intimidated by them. I bought 25 Dominique chicks and, like many other people, I discovered I liked chickens so much that I wanted to raise more than just a few. Surfing the Internet to research ways to make a profit with pastured poultry led me to Herman Beck-Chenoweth’s manual and video, Free-Range Poultry Production & Marketing. The chicken tractor (mobile chicken coop) my husband and I built is based on Mr. Chenoweth’s chicken skid design that is detailed in that manual.
The chicken tractor is 8 feet wide and 16 feet long. The wood is all untreated, rough-sawn lumber purchased locally for about $200. (My next-door neighbor happens to be a sawyer.) I didn’t use my own wood because I didn’t feel like cutting down the trees, dragging them out of the woods and hauling them over to my neighbor’s house, but you could save a lot of money by using your own wood. The hardware (wood screws, hinges, door handles, etc.) and tarps cost about $100. The coop is moved around the pasture with a tractor.
This is our first year raising free-range chickens as a farm enterprise, and while I would say there is a learning curve, the project is not that difficult, and can be financially and emotionally rewarding. It is important to remember when beginning any farm enterprise to believe in yourself and to persevere when obstacles present themselves. Before you know it, you’ll be an expert!