There is a surprising amount of lingo associated with the backyard flock. Words like brooder, broody, coop, run, straight run are all unique and quite often thrown around at surprising speeds. It can be overwhelming to say the least.
A chicken run is simply an enclosed area that your chickens can ‘run’ around in. (Think animal pen.) There are many different ways to do this, but the majority of time the birds are enclosed by some sort of fencing.
The benefits of a chicken run are fairly straight forward. A good run will keep your birds where you want them. A great run will keep the predators out. If you can manage both of these things, you’re doing pretty good.
### Important Note ###
A ‘chicken run’ should not be confused with a ‘straight run’. It would be easy to think that a straight run is a chicken pen with straight sides. But this is not accurate.
Straight run is a term used when purchasing chicks. Generally your choices are male, female and straight run. In the era of genetically modified things, this might raise a few eyebrows. But the reality is, chicken hatcheries deal with large volumes. And with hens being in higher demand than their male counter parts, effort must be spent sorting male from female.
However, there are those who don’t care if they get a rooster or a hen. In this case, a chick is simply grabbed from the batch and sent ‘straight’ through without the additional work of sorting of male from female. And with these hatcheries quite often working at a frantic pace, one can easily understand the how the concepts of ‘straight’ through for the chicks and ‘run’ for the workers can form the term ‘straight run.’
How Big Should A Chicken Run Be?
One thing to remember about building a chicken run is that you are defining the size of their entire world. If you build a chicken run that is small, then their world is small. If you build a bigger one, then they have more to play in. Unfortunately, the bigger the run, the more it costs to build. Hence the dilemma.
So what’s the minimum size of a chicken run?
The general school of thought for building a chicken run is a minimum of 10 square feet per bird. By this logic, you would need a minimum of 50 square feet for a flock of 5. So visualize the space of a 5 by 10 shed and that is what the birds would be living in.
To be honest, I have a very hard time endorsing this concept. Point of fact, other than meat birds in a chicken tractor, I would never subject my adult flock to this small of an enclosure. Maybe for short periods of time, where I had to leave. But never long term.
Our current flock of 13, will spend a good portion of their day in an enclosure that measures roughly 100 by 100 feet. That comes out to be more than 750 square feet per bird – lots of space! That being said, they are really ready to come out after dinner when we open the gate for some free-range time.
If you are in a situation where the minimum sized chicken run is your only option, then please consider daily ‘free-range’ time. Chickens tend to be most active first thing in the morning and then later in the evening. Having them confined during the ‘lazy’ part of the day, isn’t going to be a big issue. However, if you can allow them out of the run to play in a bigger world even for a few hours, this will go a long ways towards reducing stress for the flock.
How To Build A Chicken Run?
There are all sorts of DIY plans out there advertising for the perfect chicken run. Honestly, I find it pretty exciting that so many different people are involved in this. It makes for a lot of good options to choose from.
How you choose to build your chicken run will depend on your specific needs. Here are some general questions that can help focus on a run that best suits you.
- Are you in town or do you have neighbors who are close? Chickens have an uncanny ability to surprise you. They will get into the strangest things at the most random times. If you have neighbors that are within chicken range, then you will really need to focus on ensuring that your feathered friend stays in your yard.
- Is there a busy road to contend with? There is a farm, just down the road from us. And like most farms, there is a lot of space for the chickens to explore. Unfortunately, the barn in which they stay, is up close to the road. This means that chickens are being periodically hit by vehicles. If you have a busy road, takes steps to keep your flock away from it.
- Do you have shade available? Even in our northern climate, summers get hot! Your flock will definitely need a daily reprieve from sun. Be sure to take advantage of any shade that is available. And if none is available, then make some because they will need it!
- What kind of predators are prevalent in your area? This is a question you should really take your time on and think it through. A single fox can easily wipe out an entire flock in just one day. Consequently, people give this predator a lot of attention. Unfortunately, people generally don’t give the same amount of attention to domestic dogs – which sadly have proven to be just as ruthless. If you have domestic dogs that ever run in your area, then be aware that your birds are at risk!
- What breed of chickens will you have? Behavior for chickens can vary from breed to breed. Subjecting large flighty birds to a small confinement is going to be rough. And even if you let the birds out, a six foot fence is no guarantee that they will stay where you want them. Be sure to pick a breed with the behavior that will match your environment
- How do you intend to deal with the poo? Chickens make a mess and a lot of it! Even worse is this waste needs time to break down before using it for fertilizer. Poo straight from the source is simply too potent to directly apply to the garden. For this reason, you will need a plan for dealing with the waste. Some people use mobile runs, while others use straw as it’s easy to move. I’ve found both options to be viable.
- Is the run visible from the house? It’s amazing just how much of a deterrent your ‘visibility’ can be. Last fall, I happen to walk up to the backdoor of our house and look out at the chicken tractor that was over 100 yards away. Incredibly, there just happen to be a black fox nosing his way around at that exact moment. Without even opening the door, I pointed my finger and hurled a few choice words through the glass…and that was enough to make the fox bolt. I strongly advise you keep your flock in a place where you can easily and regularly see them.
Should A Chicken Run Be Covered?
Very rarely does a predator pull apart a wire fence. Most often they will go under or over it – depending on the predator. In the case of a hawk, their ability to go over the fence is so natural, it pretty much negates putting up a fence in the first place. For this reason, flock owners will consider covering their chicken run.
However, this isn’t always feasible. With our run measuring 100 by 100 feet, having a cover of any significance would be difficult, as well, as costly. Whether or not you chose to have your chicken run covered will depend on your unique situation. But just remember this – chickens definitely need some sort of protection against airborne predators. Otherwise, your protective pen is simply keeping your birds confined…unable to run away.
This protection can come in a wide range of ways. With our flock, we have a number of trees and bushes for the birds to lay under. And while this foliage is helpful, it is not guaranteed to save your flock. A hawks agility is amazing. It is, admittedly, quite impressive, in a very frustrating sort of way.
We have found that adding a small section of wire fence around the base our bushes – the fence being tall enough and close enough so that the predator can not attack from above – greatly reduces a hawks ability to catch our birds napping.
Case in point. Last summer, a small hawk took interest in our flock and was causing us daily greif. That predator had a taste for chicken! Consequently, I spent a lot of time glancing out the back door to keep an eye on things. It was during one of these quick looks, that I saw my nemesis hawk make its move.
With the fence being too close to the bush to allow an attack from above, the hawk decided to fly in through the opening I had made for the chickens to come in and out of. But, with the branches of the bush being low, this left limited space for the hawk to fly. Meaning, it had to land.
Have I mention how great chickens are at running?
That little predator hopped and fluttered completely around the bush two times in hot pursuit before abandoning its quest. It just could not catch the chickens. By installing a fence around the bush, I had limited the hawks ability to attack from the air – forcing it instead to try and catch its lunch on foot.
Chicken Run Vs. Free Range
If you have the space and are inclined to try raising your flock free-range but still are undecided, here are few things to help you make up your mind.
Chicken Run – Pros:
- Keep your birds where you want them – Ask anyone who has raised chickens before, the more space your birds have to run away, the farther you will have to chase them! At some point, there will be the need to grab a specific chicken. And for the record, that can be a really difficult thing to do!
- Keep an eye on your birds – It’s easier to keep an eye on things if your birds are in a fixed location. Hawks, for example, generally take a little bit to deliver a lethal blow – meaning you have a chance if you can get there in time. Nothing is more disheartening than to hear a bird ‘squawk’ in trouble and you can’t find them!
- Keep your birds safe – Beyond any doubt, a properly built chicken run will keep even the most diligent of predators out. Not only is this good for your flock, but it can be really good for your peace of mind.
Chicken Run – Cons:
- Cost – If you are going to build a chicken run correctly, then you should plan on spending some money. Weasels and rats, for example, can get through any hole that is larger than a half an inch – this includes your standard chicken wire.
- Waste removal – Chickens poo a fair amount. If your run is in a fixed location, then it will be up to you to remove the waste.
### Important Note ###
There are mobile chicken runs available. And for very small flocks, this concept is completely feasible. Just remember, you have to be able to movie it! If the run is to big and heavy for you to move with ease, then chances are you won’t.
Free-Range Chickens – Pros:
- Bugs! – Chickens are absolutely amazing when it comes to bugs. Got too many grasshoppers in your garden? Just let your friendly feathered ‘Buginators’ have a go at it and your problem will quickly disappear. Our very first flock was employed specifically to reduce the tick population around the house.
- Waste removal – If your birds are out and about away from the coop, then you really won’t have a lot of waste to deal with. For our first flock, that was completely free-range, I cleaned out the coop once a week. That was great compared to the daily cleaning I am required to do now.
Free Range Chickens – Cons:
- Predators – Without a doubt, your biggest issue with free-range birds is going to be predators. Everything wants to eat them. And this is bad for a bird that is basically too fat to fly very well.
- Getting into trouble – Chickens have a knack for getting into things that they shouldn’t. For example, your pristine landscaping is guaranteed to be destroyed by a flock of birds looking for the bugs that are hiding under the wood chips.
- Poo! – Chickens go everywhere! And while it might be nice not to have to clean out a chicken run, it is maddening when your feathered friend drops a load on your cement! Do your kids like to run barefoot in the yard? Well…
Do Free Range Chickens Need A Run?
I am a BIG fan of free-range. There, I said it!
The idea of an animal having the freedom to come and go as they want, is very appealing to me. This kind of movement, especially for chickens, allows a more even reduction of bugs while allowing the waste to be spread out rather than consolidating in one place where you as their caretaker have to remove it.
Unfortunately, this kind of freedom comes at a risk for your flock.
It’s worth remembering that your domesticated chicken is probably not native to the environment of your backyard. And as such, your feathered friend will be at a definite disadvantage.
A predator’s purpose is to maintain balance; a balance that is critical to the specific environment in which it lives. If you are going to raise a flock chickens, animals not native to your environment, then you will have to take steps to ensure your birds survive, as nature has not provided this for them.
So while I would prefer to have no visible fences in my backyard, my furry neighborhood fox will not permit this. Consequently, we employ a routine of ‘chicken run’ time and ‘free-range’ time for our flock. This has given us the most success…so far.
Do I Need A Chicken Run?
People have been raising chickens for a really long time. And for the vast majority of that time, chickens were largely free-range. But, the chickens of today are considerably different than the chickens of even 50 years ago.
Through selective breeding, we have birds now that produce large amounts of meat and eggs. Today’s modern chicken isn’t nearly as skinny or as scrappy as they were in the past. Consequently, some form of protection is advised as once a predator discovers and easy meal, they are sure to keep coming back!
Whether your chicken run has a fixed metal fence or mobile electric netting, having them confined (out of trouble) and protected is only going to give you peace of mind.