Permanent chicken houses and fenced runs are wonderful if you have the space and the means to keep them clean, compost the litter, and spread it around. However, if you want your chickens to be productive workers in your yard and garden, you might want to control where they scratch and peck. The advantages of moving your chickens around include preparing the garden for planting, cultivating the garden, pest control, and even mowing and fertilizing the yard. If you operate on a larger scale, movable chicken pens are useful for enhancing pasture fertility, fly control, and grazing-animal manure management. Bottom line — let the chickens do the heavy lifting so that you don’t have to.
Portable poultry enclosures are nothing new — pasture-reared birds were raised in wooden and wire coops with open bottoms since before rural electrification. These coops were necessary to keep the birds contained and safe from predators, and they were moved daily. Gangs of these so-called “chicken tractors” mowed the grass, aerated the sod, and fertilized it in a single pass. Although the chicken tractor has been a useful component to the flock-keeper’s kit for more than 100 years, it has undergone only minor evolution as modern material and thoughtful innovation and even technology have become available.
Most modern movable coops are combination chicken shelters with attached runs, mounted on skids or wheels and readily moved along the ground from place to place. These structures can be framed in many ways. Some choose to build the frame using lumber — a great choice for those with a good scrap pile. Others build the base with lumber to which they attach hoops created with 1/2-inch PVC pipe. Still others use metal tubing and weld complete frames from scratch. Virtually all of these frames will include a house or shelter component at one end that the builder covers with a solid roof and sides. Most of these structures have open bottoms, which facilitate scratching, although in places where predation is particularly heavy, the bottoms are meshed as well.
The main downside to the chicken tractor is potential crowding. Even if you move the pen every day, if the birds are shoulder to shoulder, it’s hardly humane.
Another option for moving your chickens around is to construct a shelter large enough for the flock to roost in — you can build it with wheels to move it more easily — and then surround it with lightweight interlocking wire mesh panels to create the run. The downside to this kind of mobile coop is that you’re limited to run shapes and moving 10 to 15 panels can become a chore. Plus, to be effective, the ground needs to be fairly flat where you intend to use them.
To overcome the irregular shape, folks have had limited success with a movable house surrounded by lightweight poultry wire loosely attached to pieces of rebar or other temporary “fence” posts that are easy to install and remove. This method will allow curves, but the chickens will often push under the netting because there isn’t a rigid frame along the bottom. Additionally, it’s not always easy to pull posts and roll up poultry wire — in time, it becomes kinked and ineffective. An effective alternative to the mobile model takes advantage of relatively new technologies to keep the chickens contained almost anywhere, and it works because it incorporates a combination of physical and psychological barriers to the chickens on the inside and the predators on the outside. Rather than surrounding the mobile house with traditional poultry mesh and pound-in posts, you can surround it with a step-in post-supported mesh constructed of a string-like material created by twisting strands of plastic and conducting wires together. The plastic fibers offer support and visibility, while the conducting wires offer a means to electrify the mesh, which discourages chickens (and predators) from touching it. Using the electric net effectively will require you to spend a bit of time training your birds to avoid it — they need to get shocked. This type of chicken enclosure will require a length of netting with nonconducting posts and a means to energize the fence with a high-voltage, pulsed electric charge. Never attempt to directly charge this fence with household current. Instead, employ a specially designed charger that’s either solar- or battery-powered, or powered by household current.
Hank and his wife, Joanna, use a combination of permanent and portable poultry housing on their Kansas farm. They have plenty of space for permanent houses, with acres available for the birds to roam under the watchful eyes of guardian dogs. They use chicken tractors for new flocks, and electric mesh with a portable house for egg layers on pasture.