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Sheep Tractors

posted by Nature's Harbor Farm on Nov 20th, 2011 at 11:18pm

I think we’ve probably all heard of chicken tractors and the benefits of moving chickens to fresh ground regularly, but what about using the same concept for larger animals?  Last year I came up with the idea of sheep tractors.  It was an idea born of desperation.  My husband had issued an ultimatum, figure out how to keep the sheep confined or they would have to go.  We had wasted a lot of time and money on a variety of electric fencing designs because I wanted to be able to rotate them often for pasture health and parasite control.  Wool is a great insulator and my sheep were incredibly stubborn and just knew if they blew through the fence, they could get all kinds of tasty treats including chicken feed.  This often resulted in scenes such as the one pictured below. 



 Amusing as that might be, it led to a lot of wasted feed and one dead sheep from overeating.  The expense of dividing up all our pasture with permanent fencing was out of the question so moveable pens were born.

The most important feature of any pen we designed was that it had to be possible for one person (usually me, a 35 year old female of average strength who often has a three year old on one hip) to move it.  Cattle panels were an obvious choice to work with.  Each pen consists of 4 cattle panels.  Most are 4 full panels resulting in a pen that is 16’x16’.  We have one pen that is 8’x8’ which is great for getting into tighter spaces.  We found that the pens were easiest to move if we made runners.  This was achieved by bending under the bottom row of squares on two panels opposite each other.  You end up with a 90 degree angle and the panel has its own runner.  We then bend over the top row on the other two panels on opposite sides.  This makes the pen more stable and it maintains the shape of a square better.  Pens made with the panels without runners bow more and end up looking like a big circle.  Add a tarp over one corner and you’ve got shelter from the elements.  I always use the more expensive silver tarps.  They are more durable and provide cooler shade under a hot summer sun than the blue or brown tarps.  My sheep are all Shetlands and Icelandics so protection from the hot sun is much more important than from the cold.  If you look closely at this picture you can see the bend at the top of the panel for an example.



I originally intended just to move these pens through my pastures just like my chicken hoop houses.  The great thing about them is that I can target problem areas where I want the sheep to clear weeds or brush.  I kept them on one particular hillside that was infested with ragweed.  My sheep absolutely love ragweed and will even act somewhat offended if I move them to a spot that has just grass!  This worked well so when our lawn tractor died this spring, I moved some sheep pens into the yard.  I mowed all around our house with the sheep.  We were able to completely eliminate the use of fossil fuels for mowing except for a very small area in front of the house where our children play which we mowed with a push mower exactly twice this year.  I have used these pens to clear some ridiculously tall weeds.

I'm not sure why this picture is smaller but hopefully you can see that the weeds I'm clearing are over twice as tall as the pen.

Voila!  The same space a week or so later.  Beautiful grass grew back in this area and I was able to graze it a few more times before our growing season was over.

I love my sheep pens.  I moved them usually twice a day and other than being careful not to run over my own feet (it really hurts if you're wearing sandals) they have worked well for me.  I would think they would work well for anyone looking to keep some livestock without putting up a lot of fencing especially if you are on rented land or wanting to do targeted mowing and clearing as I do.



About the Author

Heather Redden  

Nature's Harbor Farm is located in northern Kentucky and is owned by Heather and Brandon Redden. We are working towards a more sustainable life while producing food for ourselves and others. We also raise poultry for the many new urban farmers getting started in the area. Helping others learn more about sustainable farming is a particular passion of mine (Heather).

Comment by Catherine Lyon on Nov 20th, 2011 at 11:24pm

I am not a sheep person so please excuse my ignorance, but what keeps the sheep in these easily moved pens when a regular electric fence couldn't do the job? As a complete novice, I do not see how something so easy for you to move would do a good job to keeping sheep in their place.
Like I said, I am a complete ignorant novice on the matter so I am NOT criticizing, just trying to picture how it works. Curiosity has me asking :)

Comment by Nature's Harbor Farm on Nov 20th, 2011 at 11:34pm

The cattle panels are made of metal and the adult sheep can't fit throught the holes. They would just squeeze between the lines of the electric fence. We were using various versions of electric rope and wire and they would just squirt through. You may be thinking that they couldn't have gotten out of electric netting which is true but I quit using that years ago. It was a pain to move and after I had lambs get caught in it and die on two separate occasions, I got rid of it.

I did have one polled ewe that would put her head through the openings in the cattle panels and shove the pen to get to the "better" grass. I decided she didn't work with my management style so I sold her. None of the rest of my sheep have ever moved a pen mostly because I breed for horned sheep and they can't fit their heads through the openings so don't have any leverage on the pens if that makes sense. Lambs can fit through the holes for the first couple of months. They don't go far from their mamas and I have a livestock guardian dog so they are safe. Its fun watching the lambs have meetings in between the pens and run their lamb races.

Comment by Catherine Lyon on Nov 20th, 2011 at 11:51pm

Thank you for the explanation, it does make sense.

I was thinking of an electric fence that one would use for pigs, so I see now why it would not keep a sheep inside vs a cattle panel. I could just picture a sheep nosing the bottom of the panel, lifting it up and walking out.

Thank you!

Comment by Nature's Harbor Farm on Nov 21st, 2011 at 12:05am

The pens are far too heavy for one of the sheep to lift up to get out luckily. I have a couple of friends who took care of the farm while we went on vacation this summer and they would probably argue that the pens aren't that easy to move. Once you get the hang of it though they aren't bad.

Comment by Jason on Nov 21st, 2011 at 7:59am

I did something like this when I had sheep a couple of years ago. I used 2 cheap 16' gates and 1 16' cattle panel. I would lead the sheep to the pen in the morning with a sniff of grain. They would eat all of the grass while I was at work. Then I would take them back to the barn with their daily ration of grain, then move the pen to a new spot for the morning. This worked well but the pen was difficult to move. A four sided pen would have been nice but much more awkward in moving. I used a 4 x 8 sheet of plywood for shade, wedged in the corner of the 2 gates for support. There was only 2 sheep in the pen at any given time and it seemed like the grass would be ready ro graze again after about 3 weeks. I wonder if you did this with pigs using all gates if they would move the pen around themselves.

Comment by Nature's Harbor Farm on Nov 21st, 2011 at 8:15am

I tried a triangle as well but liked the square better. The key to easier moving is the runners on each side. I know which direction I want to go and orient the runners to be pointing that way. Move one corner a few feet and then the other. In about a minute the pen is moved 16 feet. It could take longer if I was in an area with small trees but I ran these pens right over them. Bend the sapling down, lift the edge of the pen over it, and drag. I would pin the top of the tree down with the edge of the pen and the sheep could eat off the leaves. Its fun watching them strip the leaves off a honey locust. Amazing how they maneuver their lips around all the thorns.

Comment by Redbeard on Nov 21st, 2011 at 8:22am

I think if I used it with my pigs they would just lift it with their nose and go under. They can pull t posts out or clay by lifting the cattle panels that are wired to them.

Comment by Nature's Harbor Farm on Nov 21st, 2011 at 8:40am

I do know someone who used something similar on a larger scale for pigs. He used 3 cattle panels on a side and one on each end and moved it with a tractor. He said it worked but I make no guarantees. I've never personally used this for pigs.

Comment by SherryBinTally on Nov 21st, 2011 at 8:46am

Love it! So glad there was an explanation for the photo with the bucket on that sheep's head. I first thought it was some sort of a homemade cone you'd put on it like the vet gives for pets when they have an injury of some sort. I needed a good laugh this morning and your ohoto and explanation gave me just that.

It's a good alternative to expensive fencing. And you can always re-purpose the cattle panels for other things if you find some other option for the sheep.

Thanks for sharing~

Comment by gwen kahler on Nov 21st, 2011 at 8:56am

wonderful! i am so excited by the tip to bend the panels to make runners. I do have fencing my sheep respect and use 3 strands of poly wire to move them into new strips of grass every week down the long narrow fields. they have respected the electric but that might have something to do with the 8000 volts running through it :) but if they did get out, they'd still be inside the perimeter fence. but i have a dog den made out of panels (so they can eat without sheep stealing their food) and the runners will make moving it so much easier! and i will be using your idea to clear new land!

Comment by Jason on Nov 21st, 2011 at 9:28am

I like the idea of bending the tops and bottoms of the fencing to stiffen it. I'm going to use that in the spring. I also wired 4' chicken wire to the inside of the panels and have used the same setup as a chicken tractor. Works good with meat birds but other types will fly over the top when they are big enough.

Comment by Nature's Harbor Farm on Nov 21st, 2011 at 9:51am

I used my small pen to house a couple of injured turkey hens for a while. An 8x10 tarp completely closed in the top andand kept them from flying out.

@Gwen-My sheep are just really bad: ) I even bought a more powerful charger and my fence tester was topping out at 10000 volts! The horses were scared to death!

Comment by gwen kahler on Nov 21st, 2011 at 10:19am

haha! what? bad sheep? noooooooo! i've gotten shocked a couple times and it has ruined my day!

Comment by Spun Gold Farm on Nov 21st, 2011 at 12:15pm

Another issue is what gender you have in the pen. I found the ewes were easier. Even a Shetland ram, tho, forget it. I watched him ram a gate (I know why they call them rams...) repeatedly until he got it to twist sufficiently and crawled thru to harass the yak bull--who would promptly catch a horn in his wool and toss him 15-20 feet. He would turn around and do it again. We tried putting a weight on the far side of the gate, tying the bottom, nothing he couldn't get thru. I had them pastured on the other side of town from the home place and he rammed the gate one morning until he got it open and brought the whole flock home down the highway. I got several phone calls before I went to work (fortunately) and took a can of grain and lured them one block off the highway to come the rest of the way home. When we got to the house, I put my arms around the lead sheep's neck and told her to wait...wait... when all the traffic was clear I told her to RUN! My son drove the truck ahead and opened the gate for them and they just ran in, Foghorn, the ram was huffing and puffing along behind the girls and didn't get to the highway in time to cross with them. I yelled at him to wait--wonder of wonders, he did. When the highway was clear I told him to run and he did. I had to have SECURE fencing for the little rascal. Believe it or not, he died of old age, not obstreperousness.

Comment by gwen kahler on Nov 21st, 2011 at 12:42pm

oh my! what a story!

Comment by Sandra K on Nov 21st, 2011 at 2:49pm

Many great ideas are "born of desperation"! I like it!

Comment by Nature's Harbor Farm on Nov 21st, 2011 at 8:44pm

@Spun Gold-The temperament of the animal would definitely need to be taken into account when using these pens. I do keep several Shetland rams (have 4 at the moment, absolutely ridiculous :) and I've known sheep like the one you describe. I've always selected for rams that show no people aggression and that seems to have translated into less desire to bash fencing as well. I've never had one of my rams even move a pen unlike that darn ewe I mentioned above. I really liked her but got tired finding a pen several feet from where I'd left it so she went to a nice home with a permanently fenced pasture. That way I didn't have to worry that she had shoved the pen into the garden or that she had spilled their water again. She could seriously pull though. I considered harnessing her to a cart...

Comment by Spun Gold Farm on Nov 22nd, 2011 at 2:22am

I miss my Shetlands. Foggy was never aggressive to me. He loved to have his chin scratched and he had a pet dog that he would go to for a good face washing. He just liked to bash gates and pick fights with the yak bull. His only character flaws. One of these days, I'm going to get sheep again, now I'm not working (off the farm.)

Comment by Glo D on Nov 28th, 2011 at 10:45am

Loved this blog and all the comments. I read it through twice. :) I may have to use this idea for mowing down weeds at our place. I remember as a child when my mother first obtained a milk goat she just put a thick dog collar on it and tied it to a tire by the house. Every night she would have one of us put it in the barn and every day we would bring it out again to a different spot to "mow" the lawn.

Comment by Spun Gold Farm on Nov 28th, 2011 at 10:53am

I did too. I used a 5 gallon bucket for water which my then 2 scrawny 2 year old would fold himself down into till his pants filled with water and grin over the edge of the bucket.

Comment by gwen kahler on Nov 28th, 2011 at 1:36pm

We made a hoophouse shelter this weekend for our sheep to give them some weather protection. Little boogers promptly started trying to scratch and rub their itches on the pvc hoops. Probably won't last the winter....sigh.

Comment by Gerald Crowe on Nov 28th, 2011 at 3:18pm

Get 2-3 of the panels and use them for your hoop.
For 2 panels get 2- 10' 4x4 and 2- 7-8' 2x4 or 4x4.
Cut the ends of the 4x4 at a angle, so you can move the hoophouse around.
Bolt the 2x4 0r 4x4 to the 10' 4x4 at each end.
Then nail the panels to the 10' 4x4.
Cover with a tarp.
Cover one end and then face the open end to the SE.
Take 2 pieces of roofing tin (2'x10') and wire/nail down on the inside walls for a even better hoophouse.

Comment by gwen kahler on Nov 28th, 2011 at 4:00pm

You lost me! Are you talking about using stock panels?

Comment by Cantankerous Geezer on Nov 28th, 2011 at 4:02pm

Perhaps I'm being obtuse ... but what method are you using to put the sheep (& yourself) into the pen? Have you fashioned a gate on 1 corner, or are you lifting one side or corner of the pen?

I can see the possibility of weakening the pen by using 1 corner for a gate ... and I can see it would make a bad example to the sheep if they identify entrance & exit by going under (besides ... dunno if my old back wants to be lifting 1/2 of that rig 3 feet into the air twice a day!

If forming a gate ... have you bent the wiring in such a way that it's an easy lift & hook over wires bent the opposite way on the meshing piece ... or are you using 20 carabiners or something equivalent?

I can see using 4' of chicken wire (or hardware cloth) attached to the sides if you have some sheep that do get their heads through ... or you want to keep the little ones inside.

Someone mentioned using cattle gates ... since the top corners are rounded ... I can see flipping 2 or 4 cattle gates upside down so the rounded corners also form runners ... and could probably be firmer, heavier, more expensive & able to be pulled by the ATV or my Ural. Your design is definitely cheaper & lighter weight to be handled by a single person.

Like Gerald Crowe mentioned just above ... I'm planning on a chicken tractor on a smaller scale but a similar design, except using metal studs or base plates bent up on one or both ends as the skids. The metal plates should make it lighter to move.

Comment by Gerald Crowe on Nov 28th, 2011 at 4:49pm

"You lost me! Are you talking about using stock panels?"

Sorry, yes I am talking about stock panels.

Comment by Nature's Harbor Farm on Nov 28th, 2011 at 6:12pm

@Cantankerous Geezer-The later pens I built have one corner set up as a gate using a couple of bull snaps (think that is what they are called). The first ones we built didn't have a gate and we would just lift the sheep over (one of the benefits of keeping small sheep) or lift the pen and let the sheep go under. My sheep live in these pens 24/7 so I only need to be able to get them out if I'm rearranging for breeding groups or lambing. I get in and out of the pens without a gate usually by climbing them. Mostly I use baling twine to tie them together so if I need to I just cut open one corner and then tie with a new piece of twine.

@Gwen-I have 2 chicken hoop houses built out of cattle panels. Its definitely the way to go to build a sturdier shelter for your sheep. I say all the time if I can't build it out of cattle panels, tarp, baling twine, and zip ties then I don't need it :P

Comment by ShadyGlade Farm on Nov 28th, 2011 at 11:35pm

@ NHF - LOL... your building criteria sounds familiar, ie: "temporary", ie: 7 yrs. or less.

Comment by Nature's Harbor Farm on Nov 29th, 2011 at 1:03am

@ShadyGlade-I prefer to think of it as "easily adaptable" :) plus easily fixable for someone of my limited carpentry skills. After the first couple of years farming, one thing that became obvious was that often what seemed like a good idea building wise would later prove not to be where or what we needed. Going temporary first allows us to see if our idea works before making a more permanent structure.

Comment by ShadyGlade Farm on Nov 29th, 2011 at 7:49am

Exactly, and some of our 'temporary' is going on 9 yrs old!

Comment by gwen kahler on Nov 29th, 2011 at 9:06am

ok. that makes sense. i used pvc because the goal was to make something lightweight that i could pull every 3-4 days to the next strip of pasture so they'd have extra shade in the heat of the day. not sure the panels would work because of weight. i guess i'll just let them have at my pvc structure and see how long it lasts. (we have no tractor or atv and the goal is not to get one)

Comment by Nature's Harbor Farm on Nov 29th, 2011 at 9:47pm

@Gwen-Here is a link to how to build shelters with the cattle panels. This is geared towards chickens but could easily be adapted for sheep. http://www.plamondon.com/hoop-coop.html I have two of these and move them every few days. I can move them by myself although its not the easiest thing. Partly depends on what your terrain is like. If I had more flat land, they'd be a lot easier to move. I'm happier if I have someone push from the back. Even my 6 year old giving it a push makes getting it started a little easier. Mine are actually going to become stationary next spring for chickens and turkeys because my terrain is so uneven that I have trouble keeping the raccoons from finding low places and getting under the bottom and inside and massacring (spelling?) my poultry.

Comment by gwen kahler on Dec 1st, 2011 at 9:00am

Thanks! just read it and the link. i am in west virginia and our land is definately irregular. we basically have constructed the same thing (5x8) using pvc pipe and chicken wire. any bigger than that and i get too many gaps under the bottom boards. i would also be concerned that the use of stock panels would be heavier that what i already have and make moving them more trouble. i may have to use stock panels for the sheep though if i want a portable shelter. we'll see how the pvc holds up to their abuse :) i'd only need to move the sheep shelter every 4-7 days so it wouldn't be as much trouble as moving chickens every few hours. i am going to explore her link for fresh air poultry housing, that sounds helpful to me considering we are planning to add more breeds to our flock. thanks so much!

Comment by Nature's Harbor Farm on Apr 23rd, 2012 at 10:30pm

An addendum to the use of sheep tractors:) I forgot to mention that high winds can turn the tarps into sails and move the pens, sometimes also setting the sheep free! Our farm sits on top of a ridge and I was reminded of this today. Very high winds and one set of loose sheep. Luckily, they are all white bucket trained so getting them back in was no big deal. The tarps are all tied on with baling twine so when we get these really high winds we just go out with scissors and cut the twine and take the tarps off the tops of the pens. They are also attached at the bottom. We leave them tied there so they are already positioned correctly to put back in place when the winds quit. In the winter when the pens are stationary, we drive some T posts at the corners and tie the pens to them so that wind isn't a problem.

Comment by gwen kahler on Apr 24th, 2012 at 9:23am

:) yup. same here. i went out one morning a couple months ago and the whole sheebang had floated up and away and was in the next field. now my hubby listens when i ask him to drive some posts in to hold it:)

Comment by Nature's Harbor Farm on Apr 24th, 2012 at 4:11pm

Wow Gwen! You have really crazy wind. I've never had one move more than a couple of feet but sometimes that's enough to leave a gap somewhere and my industrious little sheep head out for some fun. Using the baling twine kind of works as a safety too. If the wind gets really high and we aren't on top of things, often the baling twine just snaps and the pen stays put.

Comment by gwen kahler on Apr 25th, 2012 at 11:46am

yea, we are on a ridge top and it gets crazy up here during storms. some nights i wonder if we ought to be huddled under the stairs. i love it though:) twine would never hold for me, i'd be fixing it all the time. ultimately we'd like to have little sheds in each field, but who knows when we'll ever get around to it.

Comment by Ashley Jayne on Apr 20th, 2014 at 10:22am

Thank you for sharing this info! You have just made my life a little easier!

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