Portable Chicken Coop / Tractor – Electronics

Electronics were a must for me.  Probably the best thing I liked about keeping the birds in the chicken tractor was not having to open and shut a coop door each day.  Therefore an automated coop door was a requirement for this build.

When I started the electronics, it became a “give a mouse a cookie” event.  Automated door meant battery, battery meant solar panel, and since we have a solar panel, let’s do lights.  And for grins, I’m toying with adding a winch to raise and lower the aviary, so let’s add something for that.

I already had the battery, lights, and timer from the A-Frame build.  However I wanted to add solar to charge the battery instead of manually charging it 1-2 times a week.  I looked at some kits online and chose a cheep 20W panel and charger off Amazon.  The door automation took more thought.

I looked online and saw people using car antenna motors to open and shut the door.  I like this idea.  It would limited the amount of push pressure when shutting the door, which would prevent birds from getting caught, but this could also end up leaving the door open if the door got in a slight bind.  The biggest con for me not to use this was that, for my build, constant power would need to be applied when the antenna was extended, which would be during the nighttime when the door was pushed closed.  This would cause a draw on the battery; however, it would be a slight draw because it’s not running the motor.

Liner actuators are the other main way I see coop doors automated.  These are on when moving, then switch off once extended or retracted.  To reverse the direction, you reverse the polarity.  So they only draw power twice a day when opening or closing.  They also have a lot more push/pull torque.  This would prevent the door staying open at night because of a slight bind in the door; however, poses a danger if a chicken is in the way.  I was leaning toward the linear actuator when once again my father-in-law helped out and gave me one he had.

The actuator  requires a DPDT relay to reverse the polarity.  In the end, the power draw from the power antenna was probably a wash with the relay draw; however, the way I architected my door, the relay draws power during the day and the antenna would be drawing at night.  Theoretically there should be less draw on the battery as the solar panel will power the relay during the day.  Again, the draw is slight and probably not worth worrying about, but I do.

I’ll still have a constant phantom power draw from the photocell (circled in red in the picture of the solar panel) that’s used to trigger the door at morning and night, but that’s used for either method.  I like the photocell because it changes with the season and will be more consistent with morning and night than trying to use a timer.

I spent some time to determine the correct wire for the distance.   Based on this chart, the battery distance of 12′ with 5A puts me at 12 gauge.  I decided to use 12 AWG to the battery and 16 AWG to everything else to achieve a 2% voltage loss.  I save old appliance cords that are long, like from vacuum cleaners, and used these for the rest of the connections.  They are 16/17 gauge and should keep me in the 2% drop range based on a combination between the previous chart and this chart.   As with the power draw of the antenna, I may be over thinking/engineering this for a chicken coop.

Finally, I had picked up an old electrical panel box somewhere and I used it to house all brains of the electronics. I added a board to help me mount everything in the box.   Here’s how it fits together.

Battery

First I bring the battery wires into the box to a couple of terminals.  This allows me to connect things directly to the battery and bypass the solar charger, which is rated for 3A.  My first add-on is a cigarette lighter that I mounted in the bottom of the box.

Solar

Then I attached the solar charge controller to the battery terminals.  The Solar panel connects into the charge controller.  Finally I take the load from the charge controller to two more terminals that I’ll connect everything else to.  Connecting solar is pretty simple using a charge controller, especially compared to the wiring for the lights and door.

Lights

As I mentioned in my previous post on the lights, I need a relay for the timer to power the lights.  I could not power my light directly through the light switch.  I also used 3 wires going to the light so I could add a flip switch to override the timer and turn the lights on.  These two items make the wire diagram look like spaghetti, but hopefully you can follow it.

 

**If you’re comparing the diagram to the photograph, the diagram has positive in red and negative in black.  That does not correspond to the wires I actually used so I list the color of the wire in the photograph in (parentheses).

Power(positive) comes from the load terminal to the switch side of the timer, a jumper wire goes to a wire nut that ties to the run side of the timer, which also jumpers with the power(black) wire to the light, and the switch side of the relay.  All these connections have power full time. The other side of the relay switch goes to the switched wire(green) to the light.  And the other switch side of the timer connects to the coil side of the relay.

Negative goes from the load terminal to the relay coil and run side of the timer, where it’s jumpered with the negative(white) wire to the light.  This provides the 3 wires going to the light as Black=always on positive, Green=switched power from the timer, white=negative(common).  Because I’m using wire commonly used for AC, I switched to AC Black/white color standards when I attached the wire or when I ran out of Red/black wire.  It makes sense to me since I’ve dealt with both.

At the light switch, negative(white) goes straight to the light.   Positive(Black) goes to one side of the switch.  Switched(green) goes to the other side along with a jumper wire to the positive side of the light.   So if the light switch is on, it provides power to the green side that’s jumpered to the light and the light comes on.  Turned off and the light is off, UNLESS the time is on and sending power through the Green wire, which in turn will power the light.

Door

Hooking up the DPDT relay to switch the polarity for the actuator is fairly simple if you look at it in my diagram.  You have two COM posts that you hook positive and negative to.  Each one of those two posts will connect to 2 more post, one if the relay coil has power (SNO), the other if it doesn’t (SNC).  To reverse the polarity connect the 4 posts in a crisscross pattern.  The wire going to the actuator will connected to the 2nd pair.  If the direction of the actuator is wrong, just revers the actuator connection.

To connect the coil side of the relay you add in the photo cell so you are providing power to the coil in the day time and not at night.  You need 3 wires going to the photocell, power(black) and Negative(white) connect to the load termnals and switched(Green) will return from the photocell and connect to the coil.

To reduce the number of wires coming from the load terminals I jumpered the negative wire with the COIL and COM terminals on the relay and the (white) wire to the photocell.  I jumpered the positive wire between the COM on the relay and the (black) wire going to the photocell.

** To really confuse things, I accidentally jumpered in an extra (blue) wire with the positive connections.   I didn’t need, but didn’t want to re-do the connection so I just capped it off (white cap_.

Actuator and door

Due to the window, I wanted my door to slide sideways open and shut.  I had 2 keyboard tray slide rails which would worked perfect. They allow the door to slide 1.5 inches.  The actuator moves 10.55 inches, so I just needed to add a little play in the connections and all is good.

I started with framing where the door would slide.   I framed is so the actuator and most of the rails could be enclosed with a piece of OSB (red outline with arrow pointing to the OSB) to prevent dirt and droppings  from getting on them since the perch was close by.  I cut a door that’s wide enough to cover the door opening and slide behind a piece of wood that will prevent the rails from being bent back allowing a predator to squeeze through the door.   I attached the door and rails.

Here’s a video of the door opening and me demonstrating how to manually shut the door.

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Portable Chicken Coop / Tractor – Nesting Boxes

I cover my initial build of the boxes, including covering the paint trays, for the A-frame here.  As I mention, I really like this type of box.  And to follow-up from my first post, yes the new ISA Brown flock is consistently laying only in the boxes as I had hoped and expected.

The boxes for this coop are completely on the outside of the coop.  This gives me more room on the inside of the coop for roosting and waste/droppings management.  I put the boxes level with the floor.  I’m getting bedding shavings in the trays, which can prevent eggs from rolling down.  I’m not sure if higher tray would fix the issue, but I’m planning to move to a mesh floor without any shaving anyway, so the issue should resolve itself with the new floor.

The dimension of the boxes are mainly to accommodate the paint trays, but I think are good for any box.  I typically do not oversize my boxes, especially in height.  I’ve read that keeping the boxes smaller and shorter discourages “parties” in the boxes that lead to droppings in the box.  So far that’s not been an issue in any of my boxes.  Additionally I use an old table cloth to make a divider to give the hens more privacy, which they really seem to like.

I started by marking the ends according to the blueprints, putting each board on the marks to ensure I had the right dimensions, then cutting out the end shape.  I then cut all the horizontal boards to the proper length.  I used standard 1″ & 2″ sizes and laid out the paint tray on the boards to ensure proper dimensions before I cut them.  The larger floor and roof I used scrap OSB and a an old shelf board I had on hand.

 

I took the roof angles from the ends used them to ripped an angle on the 3 boards that meet the roofs.  I could have just left them square and lowered them to the level of the roof, but I like the way the angle looks.

Then I sat the ends upright and started fastening the horizontal boards to the ends.  I have a staple gun which makes building boxes like this much easier.  It could probably be done without it, but I’ve come to rely on how well the staples work in edges of narrower pieces of wood.

I slid the paint trays in to view the heights.  The 1×6 that I used for the back of the nesting box did not go down as far as I liked.  It gave the chickens too much room to access the bottom of the pan.  I ripped a spare board in half and used it to add to both boxes.

I cut and stapled the center in place.  I have a staple gun which makes building boxes like this much easier.  It could probably be done without it, but I’ve come to rely on how well the staples work in edges of narrower pieces of wood. I also ripped the appropriate angle on the board that covers the egg area so it sits flush on the hinge side, but did not attach it yet.

Next I fastened the boxes to the frame using carriage bolts in the top to hold the weight then wood screws at the bottom to hold the box against the frame.  The frame had a lip that was perfect to rest the box on and use a clam to hold it in place while I fastened it.

 

Finally, I attached the roof sections.  The top one I just stapled down, the bottom one is hinged so t raises for gathering eggs.  Since I used OSB, the top roof has tar paper for now and will get a either shingles or a metal roof.  The bottom roof/door is a 1×8 and will just get stained.

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Portable Chicken Coop / Tractor – The Structure 2

Tires

Several years ago, I said this build has been on my mind for a while, I decided a coop on a trailer should be low to the ground.  Honestly don’t remember why I thought this at the time, but I shared the idea I had for making tires shorter with my father-in-law.  He wasn’t so much interested in the lower trailer, but was very interested in tires that won’t go flat.

So the trailer’s tires he gifted me had been modified for about 2 years.  I give thanks again to my father-in-law not only for all the parts he donated to this project, but for making my job easier.  He already cut the sidewalls off the tires, shortened the remaining tread, and bolted the ends to the rim.  In addition to all this work, the passing of time and trailer use identified a couple areas that needed improvements.

Initially he only bolted the cut tires to the rim in one spot, where the rubber ends met.  A miscalculated in the circumference resulted in the tread being cut too short, hence the extra ad-on pieces you’ll see in the pictures.  The rubber was stretched tight and the edges curved around the rim, so it seemed like the rubber would not drift.  In this picture you see it did drift off the rim.  I added 2 additional fastening points approximately every 120 degrees.

Second, where it was bolted wood pieces were used as spacers.  These rotted and fell apart.  I decided to used foaming insulation instead and becasue I was adding additional bolts, I did it completely around the wheel.

 

Lastly, the rotted wood pointed out that the cupped rubber on the wheel was holding water.  Standing water is not good for the metal rim to sit in.  This I haven’t mitigated yet, but the plan is to cut some holes in the rubber to allow for drainage, and have awnings over the tiers so they don’t get as much rain to begin with.  I overhung the roof in the back to do this, and in the front, I’ll add an awning that will double as an extension for water nipple.

 

Roof

I wanted the roof to overhang in the front and back.  The backside covers the wheel and the nesting boxes.  I added a gutter for additional overhang to divert the rain away from the nesting boxes and for potential for rain catchment later.  As you can see in the picture, the additional length comes in handy in the winter.

The front overhang is to shade the windows in the summer, when the sun is high overhead.  During the cooler/cold seasons when the sun is lower in the sky, it will still shine into the coop for additional passive solar heat.  The overhang also helps with the pulleys for the aviary and to keep the rain off the windows and wheel.

I added a layer of foam board under the roof for insulation.  I’m not concerned with sealing  the coop tight, but I wanted more than a thin roof between the hot sun in the summer and cold in the winter.

Due to timing and budget, I started out with some used scrap roofing I picked up fee for projects.  What I had left was in pretty bad shape and I only intended it to make it through the winter before I replace it with a metal roof.  It didn’t.

Fortunately the high winds that blew off the first roof were from a warm front.  This at least providing me with a some above freezing temperatures as I replaced it with a metal roof.   I was going to special order a blue metal roof to coordinate with the blue frame, but when you need it today, you take what’s in stock at the hardware store.

 

Color

The final basic item for the build is the color.  Everything I’ve built since we move out here has been grey with green roof and trim.  This matches the house.  But as I mentioned, the trailer frame was previously blue and nearly screamed at me to be blue again.  Additionally, I didn’t have any grey stain on hand and had already spent more than my budget for the first phase of this project.

As I was fretting over the color change, I happened to watch this double-decker bus conversion video and at 12:10 the interviewer says “It’s green!”  and the builder’s reply was “It was going to be blue, but now it’s green”, basically because he’s made due.  I have white stain and white and blue go great together, so it was going to be grey, but now it’ll be white.

Additionally a white coop makes me think of it as a symbol of Captain Ahab’s white whale. In the last several years, chickens have certainly been my “white whale”.  I’ve also nicknamed the coop the Pequod.  Not sure it’s going to stick, but I tried.

Finally, It goes against my upbringing to build without properly protecting the wood with stain, but I was limited by time and warm weather.  I settled for staining the trim and pieces that were going to overlap, so I wouldn’t have to take them apart later.   Hence why I went with white and why you see some white stripes on the ends.

 

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Portable Chicken Coop / Tractor – The Structure

Trailer Frame and coop

To me, easy to move means on a well-balanced trailer.  Chicken tractors are great, but I wanted more substantial winter protection than a tarp, which means more weight and harder to move.  I was gifted this frame(1) for this project.  It was pretty ruff, so I used a wire wheel to clean it up.  While knocking off the rust, I could tell it was once blue, so Rustolem deep blue it was.

I wanted to keep the center of gravity low, so a tall coop was out.  Additionally, I had several 4′ wide pieces of wood panels that were around 30-36″ tall.  Keeping the maximum height of the coop to 4′ in the front allowed me to use these scrap pieces and only purchase one 8′ panel for the front two sections, the trailer is 8’x3.5′.

 

Accessibility

The low height meant two things.  Plenty of access from outside so I don’t have to go in and a remove able floor so if I do, I gain another 18 inches by standing on the ground.  Initially I planned on removable external nesting boxes and each end as a door; however, it was easier and less time consuming to semi-permanently attach the nesting boxes.  I’ve held off on adding a door on the tongue end of the trailer.  It’s bent upward, presenting complications with a full door and is also the best place to put the battery.  I’ll look at adding a smaller door later.

 

Lacking removable boxes and the 2nd door, I decided to make the windows access points instead; this will work out well when I need to remove birds while sleeping on the perch.  The windows were always going to be hinged at the top so they can be opened out and not let rain inside, so that access was covered.  However, instead of a fixed hardware cloth screen for the windows, I’ll make hinged screens that open giving access to the birds inside.

 

Floor

It has to be easy to clean and for that  I’m a big fan of open bottoms and poop boards.  Both are relatively easy to clean.  A mesh floor to let the droppings fall through is the ultimate goal, but after seeing the shape the trailer was in, I don’t want to encourage more rust by letting droppings fall on my new paint job.  I plan to mitigate this by covering the undercarriage cross members with corrugated pipe for protection and possibly easier clean-up.  Then I’ll build a frame and cover it with 1/2 inch mesh for an ‘open bottom’ floor.

However, to save time this fall, I went with a cheap solid floor.  I picked this piece up for $5 in the damaged section, since it was damaged on the sides and I didn’t need the entire 4′ length.  It’s slick surface allows me to easily scrape it clean with a rake.  To get a better clean, or to get inside the coop, it’s removable.  The mesh floor will be removable too when I build it.

 

(1) Footnote: My father-in-law deserves big thanks and recognition for donating parts to this build.  He donated the trailer and windows in this post.

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Portable Chicken Coop / Tractor – The Plan

Floor Plan

I’m not going to outline a step by step plan as I did in my free Chicken Tractor How-to Guide.  This is not a repeatable blueprint.  However, I did put a lot of forethought into this build.  Usually my plans stay in my head augmented by some hand drawings and/or notes.  But Bill Mollison teaches putting the majority of your time in observation and planning.  So this time I  created a better blueprint than I normally do, click on the images to make them bigger.

Why this coop?

Trailer Frame

We kept part of our layers in a chicken tractor this past summer and fall and I really liked it.  There was no fence to move, no coop door to open and close, and the open air tractor is great for pasturing.

So why not use a chicken tractor permanently?  The idea is very tempting and I may still convert a chicken tractor; however, there were several reasons or excuses not to.    Adding the refinements I wanted would mean adding weight and making it harder to move.  One person can move the chicken tractor, but it’s so easy with two we’ve gotten in the habit of double teaming the chicken moves.  Frankly I’ve gotten spoiled.  A coop on wheels allows me to put in a lot of features without worrying about the weight.

The girls would like to be able to care for the chickens without having to enter the tractor, because grown roosters are mean and scary.

Side View with boxes

We’d need whatever chicken tractor I converted in the spring for the broilers and I didn’t want to be under the gun to build a new tractor in the spring.

I really like the idea of easily moving the layers longer distances to any part of the property that needs worked, chickens and all.   The A-frame is fairly easy to move once it’s wheels are on, but it’s so heavy it takes a lot of effort to put the wheels on.  And worse, we have to catch and transport the chickens separately.

The plan.

Front View of Coop
Front View

I started by listing what I wanted and prioritizing.  Everything is designed to provide pasture and comfort to the chickens as well as simplicity for their human caretakers.  Below lists what I wanted, mostly in order of importance.  Being layers, we’ll have to interact with the flock every day, so things like multi-day feed and water were lower priority and things like easy to move and mobility were high on the list.

I plan on going into each of these deeper in future blogs.

Requirements

  • Easily moved by one person
    • Easy lift trailer hitch
    • Pull with something as small as a garden tractor
  • Enclosed aviary for scratching (tractoring)
    • Optional Skirt around coop for additional foraging/shade under coop/layer boxes
  • Peck-proof boxes with easy access lids on outside
  • Automatic coop door.  This means power supply (batteries and solar panels)
  • Easy to clean droppings
    • Floor options
      • Open/screened bottom.  Allow droppings to fall through and open air
      • Solid board.   Removable and easy scrape surface
    • Continuous perching space, up to 20 birds
  • Windows and natural lights
  • Access panels all around so we don’t have to enter coop
    • Ends are doors
    • Removable coop boxes?
  • Anti-freeze waterer
  • Easy access food and water
  • Rain Catchment system

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Chicken Tractor – for layers and broilers

As I’ve mentioned in my Chicken Tractor Guide, you can use the chicken tractor design for layers.  So this summer and fall we’ve used our idle chicken tractors to house the new flock of layers while the old layers are in the A-frame coop and being phasing out.

Layer Boxes

Since this was temporary, I did not fasten the layer box to the back wall, but you could easily make a light weight set of 2-3 boxes to hang off the back wall.  Instead we used a double box I made out of scrap 2x wood for another project.  It’s heavy but works good.

 

Tractoring

Optimal moving depends on the stocking density.  For our 8 birds I’d say about every 3-5 days.  We’ve gone as longer during busy spells, leaving the ground looking like a post-apocalyptic movie scene.  I reconciled staying in one place so long with the fact that using good feed and the pasture has plenty of time to recover before next year.

Their foraging area is much smaller than the A-frame; however, that can be mitigated with more frequent moving.  Also, I’ve already experienced that this lighter breed can fly over the chicken wire fence we use for the A-frame.

A final note. This ISA Brown flock really dug into the soil much more than my previous breeds leaving many deep holes when we removed the tractor.  I say deep, but the deepest was about 4-5 inches.  They seem to digging shallower holes as time passed, which may be a factor of us moving them more frequently or just age.

 

Supplemental roofing for the tractor

 

Since we have roosting poles already in our tractors, we only had one real issue, the tarps.  The tarps are medium duty and will typically last until the fall, sometimes longer, unless you have birds resting on them as we do.  Last year it was the crows that tore up the tarps.  This year it’s our flock of Guinea fowl.  Check out what a week of roosting can do to a tarp.

 

Fortunately I had an old piece of roofing laying around that I could attach to the top.  The boys just held some scrap pieces of wood on the inside of the coop that I fasten the roof to with screws.  This will protect the tarp and ensure a dry area underneath for the food dispensers.

 

Winter

October came and I decided not to move the chickens to the A-frame.  A chicken escaped the tractor during feeding and we caught her that night perched on the fence that keeps my Rainbow flock contained around the A-frame.  It’s really nice having them in the tractor, not needing to open and shut the coop each day and not worrying about them flying over the fence or aerial predation.

The cold of winter is my biggest concern.  I would want some better protection than the tarp and windbreak.  These are hearty birds and I’m think I could design a suitable shelter area in the tractor; however, snow is problematic for moving and requires some more thought.

 

The future of the layer flock

This experiment got me thinking about building a new chicken coup on a trailer frame and incorporating the best feathers of the A-frame, chicken tractor, and more.   Something very portable, versatile, and low maintenance.

Keep an eye out for the results of my new coop idea.  I’ll add a link to the new post here when it’s ready.  Until then, here’s a teaser.

-Jason

Guinea Pig Tractor

My wife asked me if the guinea pigs could use a spare chicken tractor during the summer so they could ‘free range’ and eat clover and such from the yard.  A chicken tractor won’t hold a guinea pig; however, I used a lot of what I’ve learned building the tractors and coops to make a ‘Guinea Pig Tractor’.

 

 

I’m not going into a “how to” on building a guinea tractor, like the “How To Build a Chicken Tractor” guide I did, but here are some basics.  I purchases 2 2x4s and 4 2x2s and scavenged the rest from leftovers of other projects.

I started with a 2×4 frame, cutting the boards at 34″ to give me the inside width and ~5 feet left over for the length boards.  I used a scrap 2×6 for the board on the end with the house so that I could attach some wheels later.  That gave me an extra 2×4 to use for the floor/nailer of the house area.

The tricky part was the 45 degree A frame.  I calculated the length needed as ~24″ for the “rafter” pieces, subtract the width of the 2×2 header, and that gave me ~23.5.  Measuring  from each end of a 2×2, then making a 45 degree cut angled toward the end, so 23.5″ is the length from the tip of the angle, will let you get 4 rafters out of one board.  Measure 23.5″ from the remaining tips and made 90 degree cuts at the marks.  See layout below below.  I cut 8 rafters out of two of the 2x2s.

I cut the 3rd 2×2 at 34″ and attached it to the back 2×6 and attached the 2×4 flat to form a ledge for the house floor.  The width of the hose is 14″ because of the scraps I had to work with.  The leftover 5′ from the 3rd 2×2 becomes the top header.  I pre-drilled the screw holes in the header where I attached the diagonals, making sure to offset the screws so they didn’t hit when they crossed.  I attached the diagonals at each end, under the inside of the house, and where needed for the door in the tractor.

 

 

 

I used the 4th 2×2 to make a 2′ door to the tractor area.  The rest was just fitting my scraps in the house shape and stapling on the chicken wire.  I also used 2×4 fencing on the bottom to keep any predators from sliding under the sides and into the tractor.

 

In these pictures I have a board as the floor of the house area.  I later removed this because guinea pigs are not particular about defecating in the area they sleep in and this area was difficult to clean.  It’s now just fenced in open bottom like the run area.  To clean it, we just move the tractor.