I loved having free-ranging chickens, but for a variety of reasons I pen mine now. Some folks equate pen with prison but it doesn’t have to be that way. My run is 30’x40’ with several fruit trees, an open compost bin and covered areas for dust bathing and shade. My back pen is 15’x30’ and when I first fenced it I used a machete to clear some of the ground cover and ringed some foliage with wire. Within weeks whatever vegetation wasn’t protected was dead. Chickens love to eat and love to scratch – between the two that spelled doom for the plants.
One way to provide fresh greens to your birds is to allow them access to your garden at the end of the season for short periods of time to eat bugs and rototill the soil. If that’s not an option you can build simple raised beds, cover the top with wire and plant them with cover crops, grasses or grains and let you birds nibble off the tops.
I’ve never done that but have some suggestions on what might be effective:
- You can use a wooden raised bed placed directly on the ground or a portable container such as a stock trough.
- Cover the top with heavy duty wire. Chicken wire is too flimsy.
- I was given a chicken tractor with ½” hardware cloth on the sides and, inexplicably, ¼” on the bottom. The small mesh made it difficult for plants to come up through the wire and every time I moved it the plants were flattened, defeating the purpose. I would use nothing smaller than ½” and if the height of the wire is placed so your birds can’t pull up the roots then perhaps ¾” or 1” mesh would be better.
- Depending on the size of your box you may have to reinforce the middle with slats attached to both sides. Determined birds can use their weight to make the middle sag.
- Most folks seem to attach the wire directly to the box with a staple gun, but I think it might be more practical to have a removable top. The top could be framed in wood and attached with a hinge and latch if you wanted to open it. Or you could make your wire top slightly bigger than the box and fold the edges down to form a tight lip.
- The easiest hack of all is just to place a wired frame directly on ground over an area of vegetation you don’t mind being munched, but still want to protect the roots.
If you’re hatching with an incubator or buying young chicks you’ll need a brooder to house them until they are fully feathered (6 weeks) and can go outside. The sky’s the limit when it comes to what you can use for a suitable place to raise chicks: stock troughs, Rubbermaid totes, rodent cages, playpens, repurposing existing structures or building your own from scratch.
I rarely have needed a brooder since I have no shortage of broody hens. A number of times I’ve donated hatching eggs to elementary schools and they’ve returned them to me when the chicks are 10-14 days old (when the novelty of having stinky birds in the classroom has worn off). Typically I get 10- 20 back. The number of chicks you want to raise will determine the size of your pen. I once adopted four 4-week old chicks that were housed in a plastic tote – not only did they not have enough room, they were clearly too hot because they couldn’t get away from the heat lamp. If your chicks don’t have enough space it can lead to bullying, pecking and trampling of the weaker ones.
You’ll quickly learn that they grow really fast, poop a lot, spill their food and water and fly and jump at inopportune times. Plot out how much room you’ll need for a feeder and waterer and if you aren’t using a heat lamp, you’ll need a heat plate. I have used a heat lamp, but advise they need to be used with great caution due to the risk of a coop fire. If I hatched chicks more often I would invest in a heat plate.
Some hints about design elements:
- You need to have access to electricity and space to put a heat lamp or plate. If using the former it should be securely fastened or suspended, rather than clamped to your brooder.
- There needs to be a temperature controlled end (starting at 35C/95F on week 1 and reducing the temperature by 3C/5F each week thereafter) under the heat source and a cooler area.
- Chicks need exposure to daylight
- The brooder needs to be ventilated, but not drafty.
- It has to be easy to clean and should be spot cleaned daily.
- The lid/door should be easy to access, but secured so small children or household pets can’t get in.
A large cardboard box can serve as a brooder, but be careful not to use it with a heat lamp.
Featured photo credit: Chicken Whisperer Magazine