Building a tractor

The word tractor comes from Latin. It is a word that evolved from a verb, “trahere” which means “to pull, or draw.” In the 18th century, the word tractor was used for a quack medical device consisting of two metal rods which were supposed to relive rheumatism. The rods were said to pull the pain from the victim. Back then animals were used to pull wagons and plows and to haul heavy loads. Tractors for agricultural use first emerged in the 19th century. The first farm tractors were steam engines used to drive mechanical farm machinery such as harvesters. These barn engines soon became portable and evolved into self-propelled devices.

I know a bit of the history of tractors because my father was a John Deere dealer for 25 years of his life. Along the way, I started collecting miniature, 1/72 scale die cast models of John Deere tractors, going back all the way to the company’s first tractor, the Waterloo Boy. John Deere found his first success in the agricultural business by developing a steel plow. The first tractors the company sold were the product of them purchasing another company. Soon, however, the company developed its own two cylinder engines with a distinctive “popita popita” sound. These engines were made to be powered by gasoline, LP gas, and diesel and dominated the company’s offerings through the 1950s. In the 1960s a “new generation of power” saw the company develop more powerful engines and larger tractors. Although it was not the first company to develop articulated four wheel drive tractors, the larger articulated tractors became popular. The John Deere Company weathered the farm crisis of the 1980s better than many other companies which experienced bankruptcies and reconfigurations during that downturn in the farm economy.

When you say tractor, I think John Deere.

So it might come as a surprise that one of the projects I’ve been working on is building a chicken tractor. A chicken tractor isn’t a tractor at all. At least it doesn’t pull anything. I is not self propelled. What it is a portable enclosure for chickens. Some are essentially mobile playpens for chickens to use during the day. Others have shelter for the chickens to roost and stay in the tractor. The tractor is moved to give the chickens access to fresh grass and soil. The birds will dig for worms, grubs, snails and slugs and will aureate and fertilized the soil as the tractor is moved around the yard.

The chicken tractor I’m working on needs to have room for quite a few birds. Although we may end up building two units, the plan is to start with 33 meat chickens in the shelter. The birds will be moved from their brooder when they reach the pullet stage and will be moved about the yard as they put on weight. Meat birds are bred to gain weight quickly and they will become more and more sedentary as they grow. At our son’s farm, the chicken tractor has to be substantial enough to provide protection from the occasional coyote that might wander onto the place.

The farm already has one chicken tractor. In addition to the coop with its enclosed yard, they have a small tractor that can hold about five laying hens. It has its own inside area for the hens to roost and lay eggs and the hens are shut up inside the shelter at night. The tractor is a bit difficult to move, so our new tractor is being designed to be easier to move. It may need to be pulled into the barn every night in order to protect the meat birds from coyote predation. Therefore, I’ve come up with a design that will allow the tractor to be pulled by the riding lawn mower that is used on the place, which, of course, is a John Deere. So we already have a tractor to pull the tractor.

I’ve done my research online and we’ve even visited neighboring farms to view, measure and photograph their chicken tractors. I think I’ve improved on the designs that we’ve viewed, but I’m sure we’ll find a downside to our device after it is completed. With the high price of lumber, I’ve been using up old boards that have collected around the place, ripping larger boards into 2 x 2s for the framework and using plywood gussets for the corners and cross bracing. Construction this way is time consuming, but farmers trade time for money every day, and I’m retired, so my hourly rate is well within the farm’s budget. I’m considering making the second tractor out of PVC pipe if we run out of on hand lumber building the first one. The pipe will make a lighter tractor, and I may learn enough from building the first one to make the second one a better device. At least that is the hope.

We raised chickens at our place when I was a kid growing up and I wasn’t a fan of the process. It seemed like there were plenty of sicknesses that would take some of the birds before they were grown. I didn’t like the job of cleaning the coop. I found the birds to be less than intelligent. A chicken will bloody itself trying to attack its own reflection in a shiny object. And I especially didn’t like the process of butchering. In fact the fall I went away to college, I stayed away from home until I was sure that the last of the butchering was done and the chickens were in the freezer. I haven’t butchered a chicken yet and have no intention of taking up the craft now. Our son and daughter-in-law have joined a group of neighbors who share the butchering process with plenty of experienced hands, so I’m getting off the hook on that task. As a result, since I do plan to share in the eating of the chickens, my task is to help with the chicken tractor, which isn’t a tractor at all.

Who would have thought a retired minister would find such interesting work?