Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens (Storey, 2017) by Gail Damerow helps readers through the ins and outs of rising their own chickens. For more than 40 years, this book has been the go-to guide on everything about chickens, from choosing your first chicken to fending off parasites and illness from your flock. In the following excerpt, Damerow explains how to design a fenced range for your chickens.
Sheltering methods are as varied as people who keep chickens and range in style from complete confinement to total freedom. What each method is called depends on who is trying to sell you on the idea as being new and different. If you enroll in an organic certification program, you’ll need to abide by the program’s definitions, which may or may not be the same as those in general use.
The basic options are:
• No confinement (free range) — seen most often in rural areas
• Confinement to a portable shelter with a fenced foraging area (pastured, range fed, day range) — used on farms with available pasture where the fence or shelter can be relocated periodically
• Confinement within a floorless portable shelter — used in family gardens (ark, chicken tractor), and on farms (pastured poultry) with enough land for the shelter to be moved frequently
• Confinement to a permanent building with an outdoor fenced yard (yarding) — the traditional method for housing homestead poultry and other small backyard flocks
• Confinement within a permanent building (loose housing) — generally used for raising broilers or breeders or maintaining a flock during cold or wet weather
• Cage confinement (hutch, ark) — most often used in urban and suburban areas and for show chickens
A fenced yard gives chickens a safe place to get the sunshine, fresh air, and exercise they need to remain healthy. As many advantages as fenced confinement offers, it has one big disadvantage — chickens can quickly destroy the ground cover by pecking at it, scratching it up, pulling it up, and covering it with droppings. The smaller the yard, the quicker it will turn to either hardpan or mud, depending on your climate. Therefore, your first consideration when designing your perfect chicken shelter is its impact on your land. By planning your land use carefully, you can easily avoid creating a situation that soon becomes unsightly and unsanitary. Where space for a yard is truly limited, and you have only a few pet chickens, one way to avoid the problem is to level the small yard area and cover it with several inches of clean sand. Go over the sand every day with a grass rake to smooth out dusting holes and remove droppings and other debris. Some folks choose to use gravel instead of sand, but droppings get packed in the spaces between bits of gravel, and eventually the mess has to be removed and replaced with a load of fresh gravel.
The larger your yard, the better chance you’ll have of maintaining some vegetation in it. Since chickens are most active near their shelter, denuding will start around the entrance and work progressively outward. In a nice roomy yard, the ground cover may continue to grow in areas farthest from the doorway. Between the barren area and the grassy area may grow a band of weeds so tough or unpalatable the chickens won’t eat them and can’t trample them. To keep the vegetated areas tidy and safe, you’ll need to mow occasionally. How often depends on the climate, time of year, and number of chickens.
Chickens will range farther if their yard is not entirely open but includes trees and shrubs offering shade from the hot sun, relief from blowing winds, and protection from flying predators. Trees and shrubs are also an attraction because they may drop leaves and fruits, as well as harbor insects that chickens like to snack on.
One of my chicken yards includes a single oak tree about 75 feet (23 meters) from their shelter, and the chickens spend hot summer days lolling in its shade. Across the driveway is an apple orchard, and the chickens persist in ducking under or flying over the fence to scratch and dust under trees as far as 350 feet (107 meters) from their shelter. (It’s no coincidence that, even though we never spray, our apples have few worms.)
If your proposed large chicken yard has no trees, provide one or more small range shelters scattered throughout the yard to offer shade, a windbreak, and a refuge from flying predators. Including a waterer in the shelter will ensure its use. Protective trees or constructed shelters encourage chickens to forage away from their home shelter, reducing their impact around the doorway.
A covered dooryard or sizable overhang helps prevent muddy conditions around the doorway. A concrete pad at the doorway, frequently scraped off with a hoe or flat shovel, reduces the tracking of mud and manure into nests. Alternatives to concrete are mulch and gravel — both less expensive but more difficult to maintain.
If your soil is neither sandy nor gravelly, site your yard at the top of a hill or on a slope, where puddles won’t collect when it rains. A south-facing slope, open to full sunlight, dries fastest after a rain.
A range shelter to protect the birds from sun and wind can be as simple as a roof on posts. This design can be made from a sheet of plywood covered with rolled roofing or, for lighter weight, from metal or fiberglass corrugated roofing.
As a guideline to establishing your chicken yard, a nice spacious area provides 8 - 10 square feet (0.7 to 1 square meters) per chicken. If the perimeter fence is 100 feet (30 meters) or more from the shelter and the yard has no trees, station a basic range shelter about every 60 feet (18 meters).
Trees in the yard help keep chickens healthier and happier but offer a few distinct disadvantages:
• Trees provide a place for a hawk to land while selecting his next meal, as do fence posts.
• A tree close to the inside of the fence provides a handy way for chickens to fly up and out, and an overhanging tree outside the fence lets predators go up and in; make sure tree branches do not overhang the perimeter fence.
• Chickens like to roost in trees at night, leaving them open to predation by owls and other nighttime stalkers; however, training your chickens to go into their shelter at night is not difficult.
One way to cope with the problem of a messy chicken yard is to divide the yard into paddocks (small fields) and let the chickens into only one paddock at a time. Rotation reduces the concentration of pathogens and parasites in the soil by periodically giving each paddock a rest. This system works only if you can successfully keep the chickens out of any resting paddocks, which means no flying over or ducking under fences. How often to rotate from one paddock to another depends on how fast the vegetation is destroyed, which is a function of such things as your climate and the number of chickens you keep.
One rotation scheme calls for dividing the yard into two separate paddocks, each with its own entrance from the coop. While the chickens are in one paddock, recondition and reseed the other paddock, which you might do every six months or once a year, depending on what you plant and the time of year it grows best in your area. The chickens may still destroy the ground cover in the paddock they use, but the rested paddock will be sanitized, thanks to rest, sunshine, and plant growth.
If you have plenty of space, set up four paddocks so you can rotate the flock more often. A six-way rotation is even better. Size each paddock as if it were the only yard, allowing the requisite 8 - 10 square feet (0.7 to 1 square meters) per chicken.
Instead of a yard rotation, which involves sequentially turning chickens into a series of paddocks surrounding a fixed shelter, range rotation involves moving a portable shelter on pasture. It’s a good option for a short-term project of raising broilers, but for long-term chicken keeping, it requires plenty of land and labor. Leave the portable house in one place too long and the pasture will be destroyed; without expensive and time-consuming renovation, the bare spots will grow up to weeds.
Various sources publish information on how often the shelter should be moved, but the brutal truth is you have to learn to judge for yourself based on how rapidly the chickens destroy the patch of pasture they’re on. When we pasture broilers, we start out moving them every three days, and spring rains nicely revive the patches they’ve been on. As the birds grow, they trample plants faster and poop more, while at the same time dry weather slows plant regrowth, so the shelter must be moved more often. Toward the end, moving the broilers twice daily is just barely enough to preserve the pasture.
Some growers figure pasture renovation goes with the territory. Others are willing to devote the time necessary to observe changing conditions, determine when moving is necessary, and get the job done in a timely manner. Keen observation is needed because the speed with which a given group of birds will devastate vegetation depends on their size, how crowded they are, the climate, the season, the weather, and the type of pasture they are on. It also depends on whether or not they are entirely confined within the portable shelter. Surrounding the shelter with a movable fence gives the chickens more room to move around and therefore lengthens the amount of time they may remain in one place.
The major drawback to pasture rotation is that most portable shelters, being light enough to be moved easily, offer little protection in cold weather. Another potential problem is that a pasture isn’t as nicely graded as a lawn, and all the bumps and dips create a significant challenge in making a portable shelter tight enough to exclude predators. Both these issues may be resolved by having a sturdier, and more expensive, portable shelter on a trailer chassis, but in winter’s snow and ice, you’ll still have to rotate it to prevent a manure buildup that will be toxic to spring pasture.
As a general guideline, plan on providing at least 110 square feet (10 square meters) per bird (which, on an acreage basis, means you may pasture up to one hundred chickens on 0.25 acre [0.1 hectare]). Since broilers don’t hang around long, you can grow the same number in a little less than half the space; plan on 45 square feet (4 square meters) per meat bird (or about 250 broilers on a quarter acre). Another good rule of thumb is to keep only as many chickens as you can rotate without revisiting the same ground within a given year.
The so-called chicken tractor concept uses the same principle as range rotation in a confined shelter, but the shelter is moved around a garden expressly so the chickens will destroy weeds, eat cutworms and other pests, and fertilize the soil. Although active chickens will scratch in the dirt, hence the name chicken tractor, standard broilers and other inactive types tend instead to compact the soil. Like pasture shelters, portable garden shelters must be moved often enough to prevent the chickens from foraging in their own droppings. And in northern areas the birds will need alternative housing that offers protection from rough winter weather.
More from: Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens• Identifying your Chicken’s Backyard Predators
• Broiler Chicken Health Issues
Excerpted from Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens, Fourth Edition © by Gail Damerow. Used with permission from Storey Publishing.