Sunday, December 4, 2011

Winterizing the Chicken Tractor

Chicken coop, barn, and portable fencing (for rotational grazing). 
Note the shade cloth on the chicken coop run.

Many people started raising a few chickens in chicken tractors (portable coops) this year.  We had quite a few of them stop by and take pictures of our portable coop and use those as a basis for coming up with their own designs (that were hopefully much lighter than the one we built!).  Now we are getting questions about how to get chickens through the winter without them freezing. Chickens are pretty hardy, especially most of the heritage breeds that people are choosing to raise this way, but there are things you can to to help ensure that your birds remain safe, healthy, and comfortable this winter.
  1. They should have a draft-free coop.  Not air-tight, because they need ventilation, but not drafty.  Our coop has louvered doors next to the nests and two vents, one at the top and one at the bottom of the coop.  When the weather gets below about 25 degrees F, we have cardboard inserts that we install to cover the louvres and an aluminum sliding door that we slide in to cover the upper vent.  The birds huddle together and stay quite toasty.  The coop actually feels warm when I open it in the morning and the birds appeared quite comfortable even when outside temperatures got down into the single digits.
  2. Make sure the coop is dry.  Be diligent about checking nests and bedding to make sure they are dry.  We line our nests with hay and I clean the nests daily to make sure they aren't damp.
  3. Make sure they have free flowing water.  This is a real problem for some people and I hear stories of taking fresh water to their birds several times a day or building all kinds of insulated water holders.  We bring the plastic waterer in every night and refill it and replace it each morning.  But because of our "greenhouse run", the water does not freeze during the day.  Never has.
  4. What is a "greenhouse run"?  See the pictures below.  We have a standard A-frame run, but we cover ours with greenhouse grade plastic and it has "wings" on both sides that can be raised or lowered for protection from wind and rain and for ventilation.  During the summer we usually keep one side down and have a piece of shade cloth on that side to provide shade (see picture at top of post).  When it is brutally hot and humid, we raise both sides.  In the winter we usually keep both sides down all the time.  Solar heating keeps the run comfortably warm and dry and protects the birds from the wind.  Throughout most of the winter, the end door is open to the annex (see the photos) so they can get fresh air and sunshine.  When it is REALLY nasty out, we keep the end door shut.
  5. Make sure they have plenty of high energy feed.  Our birds are on fresh ground everyday because we move the coop every morning.  They get scraps from our kitchen and garden and have access to commercial crumble, too.  But when it is really, really cold and nasty out, we also give them a dish of scratch and a morning bowl of hot oatmeal.  Oh, they love the oatmeal.  I know.  That is really spoiling them and they probably don't need it, but they sure do love it! 
And that's how we get our hens through the winter. They appear comfortable and it requires minimal effort on our part.  Below are pictures I took right after we put fresh plastic on the run last weekend.  We used a four year, polyethylene greenhouse film which should give us many years of service.  Note the aluminum flashing on the peak.  We've learned that is a wear point for our system; the first place the plastic starts breaking down, so we covered it with the flashing this time. When we "raise the wings" the hinge is that horizontal wood strip you see running across the center of the side. It folds up and is held in place with a short bungee cord.


  1. Thanks for sharing about your tractor in the winter! We are new to tractors this year, and ours has a built in coop, which we want to cover the coop/tractor with clear plastic as well, to warm them up more, and hopefully avoid frozen waterers! Where are you located? We are in VA, and worried about having to park them permanently in one spot for a few months due to dormant grass.

  2. Tiffani, we are located in the mountains of western North Carolina just south of Asheville. We definitely get winter here. The chickens did just fine in this winterized tractor with temperatures in the single digits. We put the waterer in the covered run area in morning when we open the coop door and bring it in at night when we shut the door. The water has always stayed liquid during the day.

  3. I live outside Asheville too..and am new to keeping chickens. I am debating lining their chicken coop with plastic so when they are outside the winter winds are not as bad. We use a tractor to get them out into the yard too.