For the past 12 years, we have run chicken tractors over our gardens all winter long. We have a small flock — between two and five ladies at any given time — and the system has worked excellently well for our intensively gardened space.
The benefits of a chicken tractor are great. First, the chicken poop, mixed in with their straw bedding and the layer of leaves we lay over each bed in the fall, creates excellent organic matter. The nitrogen of the droppings balances the carbon of the bedding and the whole mass breaks down quickly into a deep seedbed which holds water well into the summer. I have not had to add soil to the raised beds since we added the chicken tractor to our design. The droppings become fertilizer for vegetables and our crops thrive. Chickens also provide considerable insect control. We first considered adding a flock to the back yard because it was the only way to control the pill bugs that were chomping down the squash seedlings. The ladies eat the pillbugs, as well as other insects in the garden beds, although they prefer to root through the compost pile for their live protein. They have helped with slug control, not by eating the slugs, but by digging through the leaves and grass where the eggs are resting and exposing them to the air. And, yes, we like the eggs.
Our chicken tractor is based upon an old MOTHER EARTH NEWS design. It is an A frame, four feet wide by five feet long, that sits directly on the four by ten foot constructed raised beds. Our beds are not just deeply dug mounds; they are framed by lumber for improved drainage. The ridge runs across the beds. There is a nest box/night roost in the peak of the coop, with a drop down door for access from the yard. We have added doors on both sides of the coop so that we can let the chickens out into the yard or onto the rest of the garden bed, depending upon the day and season. The coop holds three chickens comfortably, even on rainy days, and five if they have access to at least the rest of the bed during the day. Some years we have constructed runs over the entire ten foot bed. Other years, when the flock is smaller, we simply move the coop from one end of the bed to the other. We worked on making the entire structure as light as possible while still providing protection. There are two handles about waist high so that we can carry it around the garden. (See my blog for detailed photos!)
The tractor moves every month throughout the winter, following a strict crop rotation system. There are ten garden beds and I try to tractor at least eight of them from September through May. The first bed to be tractored is the garlic bed, because it is the first harvested and it is on the edge of the garden. The coop sits on the bed, but the chickens still have access to their entire far back yard and compost pile summer run. Then the coop moves west, towards the house, through the beds. Each bed does not represent a specific crop, but a specific planting date. So, we have a spring bed, which is planted in mid-March, and holds peas, greens, radishes, and some early broccoli. There is a summer bed for summer greens, beets, carrots, etc. that is planted out in April, three beds of potatoes, a bed of squashes planted in May, another bed of various beans that is direct seeded after the snow melts in the mountains, and a late bed of fall and winter crops. Because the planting is organized by planting date, the coop can still be moving through the garden as planting is happening. We just have to be creative about fencing!
In June, the tractor run is completed and the coop is tucked under the laurel trees for the summer. We lay out the fencing that keeps the ladies on the back third of the yard near the compost pile and the watering pool, and let them run all over for a few months, until the garlic is pulled and it is time for them to go back to work.
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