Instructions and construction pictures below, after the story on why we built such a contraption and how it’s working for us.
We started keeping chickens for meat this year. The goal is more to add fertility to our soil; the meat is a welcome but secondary yield. Chickens have done an amazing amount of work for us already in the orchards. If we had an easy market for eggs, I would have added more layers, but we don’t. And meat birds spend their winter in the freezer, not eating sacks of organic feed. As short term summer residents, their housing needs are minimal compared to the year-round residents: something dry, a place to roost and protection from predators.
Our first batch of meat birds came out of the brooder into this three sided shelter, made out of four 2x4s, two livestock panels we had lying around, and a 12×16′ tarp. Total new household expense was less than $30 (the panels run about $60 a piece, but we already had them). We made a 4′ circle out of concrete reinforcing mesh and stuck some branches through it for a roost. Technically, the shelter is portable. I can drag it on my own, just not easily. We protected the flock with an electronet fence. The whole thing worked quite well until it came to move the flock. With no way to contain the birds, we moved them from one part of the property to another by stretching out electronet in the direction we were headed, moving the coop, then moving the net again. And when it came to slaughter day, we had a great time catching birds since we couldn’t shut them up.
What we did learn after our first home-grown chicken is that they are tasty! And that if we ever wanted to transport them to the new orchard down the road, we were going to have to build them a deluxe version of the mobile coop. They need to be fully enclosed for the transport, but on wheels. Typical chicken tractors are meant to be dragged a tractor length or two every day. By the time we moved them a block and half, we might as well set up the killing cones and process them at their destination. And while we can push the first layer coop I built across the pasture, it isn’t road-travel worthy. A towable coop is what we need, and that’s what we built.
The base is an 8′ trailer kit from Harbor Freight. Once we assembled it, we framed up the base for one of our livestock panel shelters right on the trailer bed. Since the chicken wire floor has to support some meaty birds, we added floor joists to the bottom frame. We added end panels and a door so the chickens stay put when we move the coop. Our neighbors said it looks like a Conestoga wagon, so we dubbed it the Chickestoga.
We learned one lesson the hard way – chicken wire is not raccoon proof. When we transferred the second batch of chickies into the Chickestoga, they hadn’t learned to roost yet, so we spread out some feed bags on the chicken wire for them to rest on until their instincts kicked in. Well, a raccoon figured out the second night how to poke its evil little paw up into the chicken wire, nabbed a chickie and bit its head off through the floor. I heard the commotion and drove it off, and it circled back two more times. Finally, at 3 in the morning, R and I pushed the Chickestoga into the garage (we had designed it to fit but hadn’t tested it, had a 1/2 inch to spare). When we brought the coop out the next morning, we redeployed it within an electronet paddock. It took some persuading to get the chickies to go back in the next few nights! Now that they use the roosts, the raccoons can’t reach them, but the chickies are still under double protection at night, since we are putting the geese in the paddock for the night anyway. Do not be deceived by their sweet little faces, raccoons are killing machines.
Other than the raccoon incident, the Chickestoga is working great. There isn’t any bedding to change, we just move the coop to wherever we want the fertility. We have 23 birds using it now. The recommendation is a foot of roost space if they only sleep in their shelter, and they certainly have that, although they all seem to huddle up in one corner anyway. We hang the food and water inside to keep the geese from bothering it, so the chickies go in and out all day; sometimes they hang out on the ground underneath for shade. Next year, I think I will spread a tarp on the floor and hang an electric heat lamp inside and see if it will work as a brooder after the chicks are a week or so old. If we wait until the weather is warmer, it should work, and we can always wheel them into the garage at night if needed. I like the idea of the birds not having to stress over moving digs.
Is it frugal? Even though the trailer base wasn’t cheap, it meets my definition of frugal, in that it is pure function designed to last. My first coop is heavy, and we already had to upgrade the wheels to foam filled monsters that would actually travel across the rough pasture. One person can roll the Chickestoga by hand. And while the cattle panels are about $100, have you priced plywood or OSB lately? You’d probably use 8-10 sheets to sheathe and roof a 7′x8′ coop. The other savings is in bedding, both in avoiding the cost and eliminating the work of shoveling it out at the end of the season (we use deep litter on all our other critters to great success). If the droppings build up during use and once the birds go to the freezer, we can just hose it out and spray some bleach on it at the end to disinfect it for next time.
Things we want to improve: the trailer kit did not come with a jack; we need to install one. We also need to add some kind of flip down rear bracing so the wind can’t tip the unit backwards when it is parked. The ramp needs an attachment point, right now it’s just balanced on some logs. If I were throwing money around, I’d buy a trailer hand dolly. A raccoon-preventative upgrade would be to use hardware cloth on the floor and sides, but that would add to the cost and the cleaning job.
Could we house laying hens in it? Yes, but it would add complexity to the build. If I were going to, I’d make the lower part of the end wall (closest to the hitch) out of plywood and mount laying boxes with outside hatches. I’m not sure how I’d support it, since the sleeves we put the uprights into aren’t in the right place. It would take some figuring. Our layers winter in the hoop house, so we could make one work here, but I wouldn’t want to keep birds in the Chickestoga over the winter in our climate. It’s dry enough in the rain, but when it drops to below zero, I want to give them a little more shelter. But all my animals are spoiled. It probably would be fine, especially if some straw bedding were tossed in and the open end was pointed out of the wind. The Chickestoga works just fine for the meat chickens and that project ends long before winter sets in. If someone tries it, I’d like to know how it works.
Since the build depends on the trailer base, I’m not going to give step-by-step instructions and measurements. What follows are some photos and notes of how we built our first Chickestoga. I suspect it won’t be our last-maybe we could house a few Thanksgiving turkeys in one of these. R will be glad to know it’s too late in the season to start that project.
The trailer base came from Harbor Freight. Anything under 8′ does not have to be licensed in our state. This craft is under 8′. The kit comes with a full electrical package. We figured the chickens would only fool with and destroy the wires, so we didn’t bother installing it. The idea of trailer wiring repair is hideous under any circumstances, but under a used traveling chicken coop, it ain’t going to happen so why bother? The maximum distance traveled will be a quarter mile down a dirt road. Give me a ticket.
Putting the trailer kit together was easier than a simple farm wagon kit we had assembled earlier this summer. It took most of a rainy afternoon to do.
I bought a 150′ roll of 3′ wide chicken wire because that’s what the local hardware store had in stock and we have other uses for leftovers. We probably used most of it, or would have, but a friend gave us a roll of 4′ wide in the middle of the project, and we used that to cover the panels with 2 laps instead of three.
Three long, 3′ wide, overlapping pieces cover the bottom and end walls. I didn’t make a picture, but we screwed down lengths of 2×2 where the chicken wire made a 90 ° bend at the front and back. The blocking wood let us pull the fencing much tighter than we could have with just staples.
It took some experimentation to figure out how to safely arch two panel. What worked for us was to lay one panel onto the frame and nail in one edge, then flip it out 180 ° out of the way. We nailed in the second panel’s first edge on the same side. This position is shown in the photo above. The chicken wire was a nuisance while working with the panels.
Once one edge of both panels were nailed down, we carefully flexed the second one into position, secured it temporarily with some cable ties. We attached a rope to the first panel’s free end, and used that to pull the panel over the arch of the one already in place (have cutters ready if you need to remove a temporary cable tie to slip the second end in place.) I don’t even want to think about these panels springing out of position under travel, so an excess of u-shaped, barbed fencing nails and cable ties hold it in place.
I thought about covering the panels with chicken wire before arching them, but in the end, it was easier to do it afterwards. More cable ties, staples and blocking boards hold it in place. The aviation snips are awesomely overkill for cutting chicken wire.
Cable tying the panels together adds a surprising amount of rigidity>
We wanted the Chickestoga to fit into the garage if possible, so we compressed the panels as much as we could when we installed the end uprights. It fit! Barely. The door itself is made from 2x2s, field measured to fit after the frame was installed.>
An aside on the tools we used: R buys cable ties from Deer Busters because they are incredibly strong and unlike any imitation at a big box store. The surgical shears come from Lee Valley. Lee Valley calls them clamshell scissors because they are intended to open those awful anti-shoplifting plastic packages, but they are extremely useful around the homestead. I buy them by the handful every now and then because they are cheap, safe and will cut the neck off a chicken but won’t poke a hole in my pocket while I carry them or my thigh if I take a tumble. R also likes these aviation snips well enough that we have a second set in the hoop house. They are tough! And they are about the only thing that can easily cut through a Deerbuster cable tie. The cable tie tool came with our Deerbuster fence kit. Amazon sells a similar one. The staple gun is nearly an antique, made out of genuine aircraft aluminum, or so it says on the body. >
I did all the interior decorating before wrapping the end walls with chicken wire. I gathered some downed cottonwood branches for the roosts. There’s no easy way to cover an arched shape with a rectangular piece of chicken wire. I just tugged and pulled and cable tied it in place. I did give special attention to the corners: they are stitched up with thin wire (the piece that is sandwiched into the chicken wire roll, in fact) so that there were no chickie-sized gaps. I didn’t fuss much about the panel covering since the tarp would cover any sins of omission. The only fiddly bit was the piece above the door. We tipped the trailer up and down as needed to work on the uppermost parts.
A 16′x12′ heavy duty tarp covers the Chickestoga. Spreading it out without trashing it on stray loose bits of chicken wire is a two-person job. More cable ties and two lengths of rope crossed over the arched hoops hold it in place.
The panels are strong enough to hang a feeder and waterer. We use a 5 gallon bucket with a Gamma seal lid and chicken nipples for the waterer. The lid became necessary when one genius pullet decided to use the bucket as a roost. A bungee cord holds the door open during the day, a carabiner in the latch holds it shut at night.
And that’s it, a pretty simple weekend DIY project to build a mobile chicken coop. If you build one, I’d love to hear about it. If you have questions, let me know and we’ll figure it out.