Suburban chickens in a chicken tractor!

Know about this post:

  • We rebuilt our chicken tractor (portable chicken coop).
  • The tractor measures 3 metres long x 1.5 metres wide x 1 metre high. The run end opens completely for full access, and the shelter end has a half-height hatch for access to eggs, bedding and food.
  • The tractor is made from
    • treated pine,
    • treated 7 mm thick treated “second quality” plywood (has knotholes, which we painted over),
    • chicken wire,
    • self-tapping wood screws.

    The hatches have two hinges each, and are secured with fencing nails (these form loops) through which we ran light chain and attached padlocks. The shelter end was painted with leftover paint we had in the shed.

    chicken tractor with chickens

    The chooks really seem happy in their new home!

    We also attached handles made from a small length of rope and some old hose we had lying around. The handles make it much easier to move the tractor around the garden to fresh grass every two weeks.

    The nesting box inside the shelter end is an A4 plastic box we bolted to the side of the shelter end frame with more wood screws. It has drainage holes we drilled to help keep it clean.

The tools we required for this project were just a power drill, a hammer, a special drill bit for the wood screws, a hand screwdriver, a staple gun (for attaching the chicken wire, bolt cutters (for cutting the chain), and heavy duty scissors (for the chicken wire).

The wood was all cut to the right sizes at the hardware shop (Bunnings NZ) for us for free, although we did find we needed a small saw for cutting the access hole between the shelter end and the run part of the tractor.

I designed this tractor, after looking around online and finding nothing that suited my needs (i.e. a cheap, easy to build, functional chicken tractor!). It’s into it’s sixth year (I think) and is looking great, especially with the new cladding on the shelter end.

If you’d like more information about the tractor, please leave comments below 🙂

What is a chicken tractor and how does it work?

We recently renovated our chicken tractor for our new chickens.

In case you were wondering what a “chicken tractor” is, it’s a portable chicken coop. They’re cheaper to build and they have no flooring.

A chicken tractor stays in place in the garden for anywhere between 2-4 weeks, depending on how long it takes the chickens to turn over the ground and make it muddy and remove most of the grass.

Then you pick up the tractor and move it along (the chickens stay inside while you move it!) to the next plot of fresh grass.

The benefit of this is you never have to clean a coop out, you don’t attract rats or mice, the chickens get fresh grass, and the chooks are always adding fresh manure to the ground, which the worms and grass love.

Once the ground has been turned over, you can choose to throw some grass seed on if you want, but in New Zealand everything grows like crazy so I’ve never bothered.

For the system to work well, you need to have about 6 x the amount of floor space that the tractor takes up, so that by the time it returns to its original position on the grass, it’s been a minimum of 12 weeks gap for the fresh grass to grow.

This is usually enough for everything to re-seed properly, even over winter, but if you need more space adjust accordingly.

In summer, move the tractor under trees for shade, and in winter move it out into full sun to keep your chickens happy and warm.

About our chicken tractor

I built our chicken tractor with a friend about six years ago.

Originally we clad the sleeping quarters end of the chicken tractor in some old swimming pool “blanket”, which looks like very thick oversized bubble wrap. It worked well, was cost-free as it was second-hand, and it kept the chickens warm in their sleeping area.

You can see a picture of how the tractor looked below.

chicken tractor

What the chicken tractor used to look like, with blue plastic on the sleeping end.

Note: The sleeping end has a perch that runs at half height the full width of the sleeping quarters. Chickens like to perch at night, off the ground. It helps them feel safe and happy.

Over time, we found the blue plastic “pool blanket” perished and ripped, and a complete re-cladding of the coop was necessary.

We re-lined the run end with chicken wire (the original version used green plastic mesh) a couple of years ago, but the sleeping end needed a re-clad too now.

chicken tractor 1

The tractor with its blue plastic removed. You can see how the frame is put together, if you want to build one.

A quick measure up, and we were down to our local Bunnings warehouse. We bought 7 mm thickness second quality treated structural plywood, so it won’t rot when it gets wet.

Note that if you do build a chicken tractor, you’ll need to use treated wood to avoid wood rot. Most treated pine is very affordable and designed to last 20+ years in all weather.

chicken tractor 2

Adding the new cladding to the chicken tractor. This was attached with self-tapping wood screws and a drill.

The guys at Bunnings cut our plywood to size for us for free. Yay! 🙂

chicken tractor 6

We cut out a small opening between the housing end and the run. The tractor is on its side in this picture, while we worked on it.

We attached the new plywood to the old frame using the original wood screws that had been used to attach the blue plastic – I’d unscrewed and cleaned them up with a scrubbing brush and hot water when we removed the remnants of the plastic. Re-using hardware saved a lot of money in projects like this!

Then we painted the coop up using some leftover exterior house paint that had been left in our garage when we moved in. It wasn’t a great colour (grey) but it was free, being leftovers, and suited to purpose.

The paint will also help further protect the wood and weatherproof the coop.

chicken tractor painted

The tractor painted, and rope handles attached. We may have to do more decoration as the grey is pretty grim!

The final step was using gap sealer to seal gaps in the corners of the sleeping quarters. We don’t want the cold winter wind getting in and ruffling any feathers!

We hope the newly-clad tractor will last for many years, and keep our new chickens very warm, dry and happy!

home made chicken tractor

The chicken tractor in action in our garden 🙂

How many chickens?

A chicken tractor this size can comfortably house six chickens (or five hens and one rooster), but 3-4 birds is a more comfortable fit.

chicken tractor

We have six chickens in our tractor at the moment, but two are destined for the pot in a couple of weeks. Four chickens is a much better fit for this size of tractor.

We found that 3-4 birds is ideal, because our household provides an almost perfect amount of leftovers to feed the birds, so we have virtually no costs in chicken food.

This is a win-win – our food waste becomes a usable product, and we get free eggs. Plus, chickens fed on household scraps are happier and healthier than chooks fed nothing but pellets!

How to look after suburban chickens

Chickens are really easy to look after.

hyline chicken

Our chickens are hylines – they’re great little layers, and easy to handle.

Like all animals, they need fresh water, plenty of good food, and appropriate shelter.

Chickens also need oyster grit to create good strong eggshells.

You may have heard that they can use ground up eggshells instead of grit – this is true but it can encourage them to eat their own eggs which you don’t want!

Instead, use the crushed eggshells on the garden, and buy a bag of grit. It’ll last forever and is very cheap. Put a small amount in a heavy bowl – they won’t take much but they will use it.

We replace their water every 2-3 days, or if it gets mucky before then. You don’t need a fancy water container – we’ve always just used a bucket or plastic container. Just make sure the water level is accessible, and there is a brick or similar in the bucket so it doesn’t get knocked over – chickens like to perch on the edge of their water container to drink!

Chickens eat practically anything from the table – including chicken! Ours eat everything except avocado pits and peels, carrot tops, lollies (hard sweets), and actual bones.

We feed our chickens every leftover from the table, including: bread crusts, stale bread, apple cores, leftover veggies, leftover meat, leftover burgers and pizza, dripping and fat from roasting trays, fish fingers, tofu, curry, you name it!

When we have a lamb or chicken roast we throw all the bone leftovers in the cage. The chooks love it! They peck every tiny scrap of meat away and even eat the marrow if they can get at it. Snap big bones open with a mallet – they’ll peck at everything inside.

Chickens need proper shelter, especially in extreme climates. Where we live, it gets down to freezing and we have a couple of snow days each year, so the tractor we’ve built does them fine. But if you live in a really cold climate you’d want to build a tractor with two layers of plywood and insulation between.

Chickens are known to overheat on hot days, so move the tractor away from direct sunlight if it’s going to be a scorcher.

Finding good layers… and how to pick an old bird!

I messed about with fancy birds for a few years, but these days I stick to Hylines or Brown Shavers. It’s up to you what breed you go for, but for a good layer try to find birds that are less than two years old.

The older a bird gets, the bigger the eggs they will lay over time. Their comb will be pale or dull, and their legs pale and extra scaly. Most of the better layers tend to be smaller, lighter breeds.

A good layer will give you at least 5 eggs a week, sometimes more.

If you want to keep a rooster, be aware that many councils have restrictions, due to noise. Check first, before getting your roo in.

Chickens don’t tend to get too many parasites, but they can get red mites. If they do, you can buy dusting powder from the local vet. It’s the same powder that is used for horses, so if you have a horsy friend ask if they have some first.

Simple fix: Treat day!

Every Friday is Treat Day for my kids.

I buy them a bar of their favourite chocolate each, and they look forward to it, counting down the days.

Prior to creating “Treat Day”, treats were out of control. Every time I went shopping, the kids wanted something, and treats were becoming more and more common. It wasn’t good for the budget, and it certainly wasn’t good for my kids’ health or their teeth!

If the kids are with me at the supermarket, they know there’s no point asking for goodies if it isn’t Friday, because only Friday is “Treat Day”. It saves a lot of nagging, and makes shopping so much nicer 🙂

I’ve recently added myself into the “Treat Day” routine too, as my own chocolate addiction was getting out of control again – just ask my partner!

Now I have to look forward to Fridays, right along with the kids! 😦

Sometimes, simple guidelines and a regular routine can make a huge difference – save a lot of money and make families healthier too.

Do you have any routines such as “Treat Day” for your family, or do you think having a “Treat Day” might help create routine for your kids and you?

chocolate

My favourite chocolate!

Healthy breakfasts: Don’t be a cereal offender!

Anyone who has ever had to clean a stuck-on, dried-out, dirty cereal bowl will understand why we don’t eat cereals with milk in our house.

Apart from being messy to clean up, cereals are also expensive, and not particularly healthy. Some are ridiculously high in sugar. I don’t think they’re good for our health or our budget.

We’ve moved back to older, basic breakfasts that people ate traditionally, before Mr Kellogg started selling his corn flakes a century ago. We’re also trying some foods that have never been a part of a traditional breakfast, at least as far as I can tell!

So I’d like to share with you some great breakfast ideas all of which I think are better options for families. All are budget-friendly, and easy to prepare.

Because life should be an adventure. And that includes breakfast!

  • Eggs. Two eggs per person, cooked any way. Add some toast if you want. You’re done! My son likes soft boiled eggs and soldiers, while I like my eggs poached (you can poach in the microwave in a mug of water) with a little table salt for flavour. Eggs are also great as omelettes, or scrambled on toast.
  • Vegetable tacos. Why not? Tortillas with cheese, cucumber and tomatoes in winter, plus a dash of salsa. In winter, we replace the cucumber and tomatoes with carrots, broccoli and fried onion. Yum!
  • Toast. My kids like toast for breakfast. My daughter has strawberry jam, my son has chocolate spread. I like vegemite. We keep our spreads limited to one choice per person – any more, and they’ll start cluttering up your pantry. Feel like something different? Try someone else’s choice for a change!
  • Porridge. The old-fashioned stand-by. Warming, filling and economical, there’s nothing better than a hot bowl of porridge on a cold winter morning.
  • Milkshakes! Breakfast doesn’t have to be solid food. Sometimes we like to just make up chocolate milkshakes and go. Add a scoop of protein powder or psyllium husk if you feel you need more bulk added.
  • Green veggies. I cook frozen spinach in a pan with some garlic salt and pepper. It’s delicious, and a really easy way to get my greens right at the start of the day. Green veggies are a great accompaniment to eggs too! Other options for hitting the green in the morning are broccoli florets steamed in the microwave with a teaspoon of sweet chilli sauce, or cucumber wedges raw, cold and fresh out the fridge in summertime.
  • Pancakes. Pancakes on a Sunday morning are one of our family’s traditions. Make them a tradition for your family too. You’ll find my pancake recipe at the bottom of this page. Pancakes are cheap and quick, and they fill my kids up until mid-afternoon.
  • Soup. Soup is a great breakfast food. We keep a stock of tinned soups to hand, and I also make soups from scratch and freeze them into portions. Either option works, and both are great for breakfast with some toast to dip.
  • Fruit. You can’t beat an apple or two for a portable, easy breakfast. Bananas and mandarins are great too.
  • Greek yoghurt with scroggin or trailmix. I like to put a spoonful of dry scroggin or trailmix into my fresh Greek yoghurt. The combination of textures and flavours is lovely, filling, and perfect to start the day.
  • Last night’s leftovers. We commonly eat last night’s leftovers for breakfast. Leftover pizza is my favourite. Yummmmm!

What’s your favourite non-cereal breakfast? If you’ve tried something new and wonderful, or you eat something comforting and traditional, let me know in the comments!

cerealoffender

Pancake recipe

Ingredients:

Serves 4.

  • 3 eggs
  • 3 cup milks
  • 3 tablespoons sugar
  • 2 cups plain flour
  • 1 cup self raising flour.
  • Spray oil.

Method:

  • Put frypan on medium heat and spray with oil.
  • While pan is heating, combine sugar, plain flour and self raising flour in a large bowl.
  • Add milk gradually, stirring to a smooth paste.
  • Crack eggs into mixture, and stir until the egg is well mixed in.
  • Pour a large scoopful of mixture into pan. Flip when top of pancake is dry. Continue cooking until done.
  • Serve and cook remaining mixture into pancakes.

This lapsed vegan-turned-omnivore is thinking maybe the vegans are right, after all…

My confession: I’m a lapsed vegan.

I was a vegetarian for a long time, almost five years, and then a vegan for ten years or more after that. I stayed vegan right up until I bought my own farm and it seemed crazy to buy tofu from China while we had our own organic lambs in our own farm, barely a few feet away.

So I became a meat eater again. What started as a “only our own meat” exercise gradually became an “all meat” thing, and before I knew it, I was an omnivore again.

Sayonara veganism.

Now I’m not one to criticise other people’s diets any more, although I certainly used to be that way. Maybe being a meat eater again has helped me gain some perspective. I hope it has. I hope I’ve mellowed.

But I can’t help thinking that maybe, just maybe, we need to start eating less meat again.

However…

Maybe the hard and fast lines aren’t helpful. Maybe we need soft lines, soft focus, and an understanding that judgement and rules aren’t useful for anyone.

Maybe the way forward is to be kind – to ourselves, to others, as well as to the planet.

I love food, and I’ve come to really enjoy my meat again. But I can’t help thinking that we’re all eating way too much of it. Humanity’s endless lust for protein is killing not just the planet but us as well.

I’m hearing about the way our fisheries are collapsing.
I’m seeing the way dairying is killing our river systems here in New Zealand.
I’m seeing and hearing the way cattle are destroying the Amazon, which used to be the lungs of the planet.
I think we all just need to take a breath, own the damage we’ve done, and recognise that our diets are a significant factor in all this.

I think we need to change.

So I’m drawing a line in the sand. I’m going back. Not to veganism again, not yet. But to being vegetarian during the week, and to leaving meat for weekends instead.

It’ll require a re-schedule of our rotational menu, but I think we need to do this. Two days of meat should be enough for anyone. We can also have meat on birthdays or special events, if they fall in the week. But I think reducing our meat intake won’t hurt us, and will probably make us healthier.

That’s what I’m going to do. Because the only way to be the change in the world is to make the change we wish to see.

earth

From holidays to handkerchiefs…and a huge vegetable soup!

I came straight back from a terrific holiday overseas…right back into the worst cold I’ve had in years.

Woe woe woe…

So the last week I’ve been living on smoothies and raw veggies, pumping myself full of as many nutrients as I can manage, in an attempt to get well. It must be working, as I’m pretty much over the nasty bug already.

Tonight I’m cooking up a huge vegetable soup, in the hopes that will kill my illness off for good. It’s a carrot and onion soup, with cumin and coriander for seasoning. Here’s the recipe, or a brief approximation of it:

Carrot and onion soup, with cumin and coriander

– 1 large bag carrots (about 1.5 kilograms / 4 pounds)
– 4 large onions
– Any other vegetables you have lying around (I added some celery stalks and half a cucumber)
– 1 1/2 cups red lentils
– 2 teaspoons coriander
– 2 teaspoons cumin
– 2 teaspoons curry powder
– 2 vegetable stock cubes
– Approximately 4 litres / 1 gallon of water (fill a really big pot to 3/4 full).

In the pot, bubbling away...

In the pot, bubbling away…

Chop ingredients and add to large pot. Add water.
Bring to boil and boil 20 minutes.
Simmer a further 20 minutes until vegetables are soft.
Blend in the pot with a stick blender until pureed. You may wish to add more hot water to reduce thickness of soup.
Soup is done!

Serves MANY! Makes about 20 portions.

This is a terrific soup for winter, cold weather, and for getting over illness.
Can be frozen into portions.

Yummy carrot and onion soup - and so healthy! This will kill my cold for sure!

Yummy carrot and onion soup – and so healthy! This will kill my cold for sure!

Experimental eating: a simple diet

Have you ever wondered what would happen if you changed your diet completely for two weeks?

I have. Will I go crazy and drive madly to the nearest McGreasies for a bingefest? Will I break down and huddle in a corner, muttering fish and chips, fish and chips over and over and over again? Or will I don a balaclava and rob the local chocolate shop?

I like to think it will change me for the better. So for two weeks I’ll see how I cope with no added sugar, no caffeine, no junk food, no desserts, no fizzy drinks, no added salt, no dressings, no chocolate, and no processed foods.

I’ll be eating the same simple menu day in, day out. The only thing that will change will be the meat I eat for my night time meal.

Oh, and in case you were wondering, I’ll be the only one doing this in my family. The kids will continue to be fed normally.

 

What I’ll be eating.

Here’s the menu I’ve settled on:

Breakfast: Two eggs and cooked spinach.

Morning tea: Berries, mushrooms, or raw carrot.

Lunch: Tuna with horseradish, 6 nuts and green veg plus quinoa.

Afternoon snack: An apple

Dinner: Meat (or vegetarian alternative) and vegetables (plain) with cooked quinoa.

Evening: A shot of whisky.

To drink: Water with lemon juice (no sugar added) or plain water, green tea or miso soup (optional).

If I wish, I can choose to season my food with herbs and spices, tahini, or flavoured vinegars.

A typical breakfast for me. On the experimental diet, I'll be dropping the eggs to two. I'd love to add tomatoes, but it's early Spring and they're too expensive right now for everyday.

A typical breakfast for me. On the experimental diet, I’ll be dropping the eggs to two. I’d love to add tomatoes, but it’s early Spring and they’re too expensive right now for everyday.

 

What’s the point?

I’m curious. I want to see how I like eating the same thing day in, day out. In our world, we’re absolutely spoiled for choice, and it’s assumed that we need to eat something different every day. I’m not sure we need to, or that all this variety is actually even good for us.

I don’t think packaged and processed food is particularly good for us either, and I think it might be addictive. I want to find out just how addictive.

I want to explore what it is like to eat simply and very healthily.

It’s on for two weeks. I figure I can cope with anything for two weeks!

I’ll let you know how I’m going, and take photos of my meals.

 

Why the quinoa?

Quinoa is a high protein grain that is yummy, healthy and very filling. It’s also very affordable. I like it, the kids like it and it goes well with anything. Plus, unlike rice, it grows well in our cool temperate climate here in New Zealand and can be sourced locally and organically.

Quinoa can also be eaten hot or cold, so it works well for lunches (cold) and dinners (hot). An all-round winner for a simple diet.

quinoa

Why the whisky?

There’s good scientific evidence that whisky lengthens our telomeres. In other words, it may help us live longer. Caffeine, on the other hand, shortens our telomeres. The science is still new, but I’m going with it, and avoiding caffeine and including whisky in small amounts.

 

What I’m avoiding – the dairy gap

The obvious gap is dairy products. I won’t be drinking milk or eating cheese. Personally, I think these products are vastly overrated and I don’t think they’re healthy at all. There is no evidence they reduce bone fractures either.

What does seem to help is reducing meat intake and increasing intake of green leafy vegetables, so I’m doing that instead and eating green leafy vegetables at every meal including breakfast, plus including tahini and nuts. I hope I don’t miss my cheese too much!

 

Sugar sugar…

Today for lunch I tried something new.

Instead of having my usual tinned tuna with sweet chilli (it comes that way, already flavoured), I had tuna in seawater, which I drained and to which I then added German horseradish.

horseradish

This gave me the flavour hit I love – and it was delicious – without all the added rubbish that is added to the flavoured tuna tins.

You know what I found? It filled me up a whole lot more.

As well as the tuna, I had a small plate of quinoa, with some almonds and baby spinach, topped with balsamic vinegar. Yum.

lunch

Overall, I’m simplifying my diet, and getting the sugar out. I’m not overweight, but my mother has pre-diabetes, and I don’t want that. So I’m moving to a simplier, more whole foods diet, while still keeping the budget under control – so no organics, as they’re way too expensive.

Instead, I’m keeping things seasonal, basic, and uncluttered.

Real food can be expensive, but not if you’re sensible about it. By keeping meat portions down, staying with seasonal foods, and keeping meals simple, I think we can eat real healthily and probably cheaper than the typical Kiwi.

Have you thought about simplifying your diet? Or maybe you’ve already done so!