AnimalsFencing

Beyond Eggs – Part 1

The Pros and Cons of Free Range and Mobile Chicken Pens

Well-managed chickens can provide eggs and meat as well as composting assistance, sanitation and pest reduction, soil amendment services, and entertainment.  

But poorly managed chickens tend to focus all their talents and energy into very destructive pursuits, as you know if you’ve had your seedlings repeatedly dug up or your fruit trees efficiently de-mulched.  

How can we harness all that chickens have to offer, in ways that keep everybody happy, healthy and productive?

 

Design and management for maximum integration

A major key—perhaps THE key—to making a Permaculture system work is the relationships between the parts (or elements) of the system.

A flock of chickens is an example of an element in a Permaculture system, and it can potentially have relationships with many other elements in the system that it supports/is supported by.

Anybody can stick a flock of chickens in the backyard.

But if you were approaching it from a Permaculture perspective (a holistic perspective) you’d carefully consider how to locate and manage the flock well so that ALL of the outputs it produces, or functions it can perform, are put to use in service of the surrounding ecosystem.

Healthy ecosystems teem with diversity, each life-form inter-connected with all the others in a complex web that would be weakened and compromised if just one strand were removed. This is what we are striving to emulate.

It’s the interactions, exchanges, and synergy between the components of the system that provide the stability, adaptability, flexibility, efficiency, productivity/abundance, and beauty that we find lacking in a monoculture or in a less integrated system.

With this concept in mind, this article Series will discuss:

  • The pros and cons we’ve found with free-range chickens and with mobile chicken pens (here in Part 1)
  • Why we’ve lately decided to try a system of keeping our chickens confined to a large deep litter run (coming soon in Part 2)
  • Some of the ideas we have for ensuring they’re as busy and well fed as they were when they were out foraging for themselves ( coming soon in Part 3).

 

Our first chicken keeping experience – free range

When we got our first chickens, we weren’t thinking about design or management. We just wanted to see chickens scratching in our backyard and let the kids collect fresh eggs for breakfast.

We started off with 5 laying hens. We converted a dog pen into a coop, which opened onto an un-fenced backyard, which opened onto pastures and forest.

It was what I would call “true free range.” So much space that the chickens could never run out of foliage and bugs to forage for, and not enough chickens for their manure to become unmanageable in any of the spaces where they spent time.

At this time, we had a very small veggie patch. It was heavily fenced to keep out deer and rodents, so keeping chickens out of it was a non-issue. We also had no near neighbours – so other than the issue of predation, there was no reason to fence the chickens in.

Predation, however, turned out to be a very good reason for limiting our chickens’ range. It wasn’t long before coyotes ate four of our five chickens.

Clearly our chickens were not very well integrated into their surroundings. Their function as prey for the coyotes far outweighed any other function, and it was a one-way deal rather than a mutually beneficial exchange.

We named the surviving hen James Bond, got four more, and fenced the back yard.

So now they were no longer free range. If we wanted them to have greens and bugs to eat, we had to import them. And if we wanted to make good use of their manure and keep their living areas clean for them, we had to collect the manure and move it somewhere else.

Which, for such a small flock, wasn’t too hard to do. And although we didn’t recognise it at the time, the requirement to fence them in placed our feet on a path toward more thoughtful and deliberate management of our chickens.

A free-range mother and her chicks out foraging
A free-range mother and her chicks out foraging

Free range pros

If you have a small enough number of chickens and a large enough space for it to be honestly called “free range,” these are the free-range pros I can think of:

  • Very healthy birds, and hence, very healthy eggs (and meat, if that’s a function of your flock).
  • If their range has lots of varied plant and insect life, and if they are capable foragers (which depends on what breed they are), your chickens will rustle up a fair proportion of their own food.

    But this is only a pro if the area the chickens are foraging in is able to sustain them. If they are using up the area’s resources faster than they can be replenished, then the chickens’ foraging abilities stop being an asset and become a liability.

  • If you have large livestock, such as cattle, pigs, goats, or horses, free-range chickens can provide a sanitation service: they are proficient at spreading the manure of larger animals, so it can break down more easily, and removing the insects that are attracted to it.

 

Free range cons

  • Predators tend to help themselves to your flock. (Some people mitigate this risk with the use of livestock guardian dogs. I have no experience with this, but I encourage you to look into it if you think it might suit your circumstances.)
  • If you have anything more than just a few free-range chickens, you’re likely to encounter a build-up of chicken manure in places where you don’t want it. What could be a valuable asset becomes a liability.
  • You cannot do one ounce of gardening work without your chickens coming to “help.” They can destroy your work faster than you can re-do it. If you don’t fence the chickens into some kind of chicken containment, you have to fence them out of your gardens and fruit tree areas.
A free-range hen resting with her chicks
A free-range hen resting with her chicks
– and depositing their poop in an area where it’s not wanted.

Mobile chicken pens

A few years later, and after a few other chicken-keeping scenarios, we decided that mobile chicken pens would be the way to go.

We bought two rolls of portable white electrifiable chicken netting, enabling us to fence our chickens into moveable areas of variable sizes and shapes. (The mesh works to keep the chickens in and to keep predators out. In our experience, it’s very effective for both purposes.)

Mobile chicken pen mesh.
Mobile chicken mesh. Versatile and effective.

At this time, we were back in Australia and renting a property where the large chicken coop had a veggie garden area on one side of it, a relatively flat, open pasture area on the other side, and a large banana patch behind it.

Our mobile mesh fencing worked well on this property.

Mobile Chicken Pen
A mother and her chicks resting near the mobile mesh fence.

When we wanted to allow the chickens to clean up some veggie garden beds, we fenced those beds off from the others and let the chickens in. This enabled them to perform valuable services of debugging, de-weeding, and manuring, while reducing our feed bill and producing better quality eggs.

We didn’t have enough beds or a well-enough managed system to provide the chickens with garden beds to work on all the time, but it didn’t matter too much. When there was no garden work for them, we put the mesh around the outside of the banana patch, or on the flat pasture, and gave the chickens access to one of those areas for their daytime foraging.

Ample easy-to-fence, chicken-friendly habitat made up for our sloppy management.

Of particular interest, I later realised, was the health and vitality of the banana patch behind the chicken pen. It was healthy, because it was fed by the chicken coop which was above it on a slight slope.

Whether someone had planned it that way or not I don’t know, but it was an example of an effective loop, or relationship, between two elements in our system.

  • Chicken contribution to banana patch: manure.
  • Banana patch contribution to chickens: shelter, shade, and lots of old, decaying banana trunks on the ground among which to scratch for worms and insects.

Besides the banana patch, the other interesting feature of this chicken coop was that the entire coop had an earth floor and there was deep, fertile soil underneath the roosting area (into which the banana roots were reaching). This gave us a clue for what we would later decide was our ideal chicken housing arrangement – which I’ll describe in Part 2.

But first, the pros and cons of mobile chicken pens.

 

Mobile chicken pen pros

  • Modern fencing materials make moving and protecting your flock relatively easy.
  • This is a super effective way to tighten the loop between the chickens and the veggie garden, or other areas where good management enables the chickens’ natural behaviors to be put to good use.
  • Chicken contribution to veggie gardening: de-bugging, using up old, insect ridden, or otherwise unwanted plants, depositing manure.
  • Veggie garden contribution to chickens: providing some of their food needs, providing exercise, making healthier eggs and happier chickens.
  • Done well, I think that chickens in mobile pens can be as happy and healthy as free-range chickens. And done really well, I think they can be even healthier, because you can organise a more nutrient-dense smorgasbord for them.

 

Mobile chicken pen cons

  • To do mobile chicken pens well, you have to be able to manage a fairly intensive system and keep it productive all the time. Chickens need to forage, scratch, and eat, 7 days a week. Its high maintenance.
  • If you run out of garden beds that need de-bugging and you have no-where else with foliage and bugs to put your chickens, they’re back to their barren coop and you’re back to foraging on their behalf – or just eating eggs produced on a commercial feed mix with no extra goodies added. Meh. 
  • Did I mention it’s high maintenance? Moving and maintaining chicken fences is time consuming. No matter how high tech the fence is. 
  • Worse case scenario: you put your chickens in some garden areas that you want them to work over, but they escape, and work over the areas you expressly did not want them in. Hours of work get rapidly undone. Gardener gets very angry, and chickens get very unpopular.

 

Coming up next

Coming up in Part 2, I’ll describe the advantages of keeping chickens on deep litter, and why we’ve decided to try confining our chickens entirely to a deep litter system.

Download this Series for free at ARealGreenLife.com.

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Kate Martignier

Kate writes at ARealGreenLife.com – an exploration into thinking differently and living a more natural, connected, and sustainable life.

6 Comments

  1. thank you, it was a great piece! When we were still farming, Mom had a two-acre patch fenced off, with a middle fence. One side was for the chickens for a year, the other garden. In fall, a dozen varieties of cover crop were planted in the garden, and in spring, the chickens got it. Now, too many coyotes, hawks, stray dogs and cats, and one eagle that seems to want to invite my dachy to dinner. And, this is a large village, but a few spoilers had poultry outlawed. Worse, some snoop was ratting on anyone with poultry. Last townhall meeting, the country commissioners got an earful by owners of chickens and people who wanted to buy them for themselves. The commissioners are going to see about changing the asinine law. If I were in NYCity, I could own a flock, and have goats, as well. Why not here, ten miles from a town? this is why so many people hate outsiders coming in and wrecking lives. niio

    1. Hi Red, thanks for your supportive comment. Your Mom’s chicken keeping and garden set up sounds like you grew up eating good food.

      Your situation with neighbors who are not supportive of chicken keeping sounds very frustrating. It sounds like some relationship building is in order between those who want to keep chickens and those who don’t. Perhaps finding out what concerns the non-chicken peeps and looking for ways to meet those concerns might help. A gift of eggs always goes a long way, too, in warming up relationships.

      As with Dominic, below, who has to choose between insect habitat and chicken foraging or work to find ways to have both, we’re often faced with a choice of “either/or,” unless we’re willing to do the work of looking for ways we can have “both.”

  2. Thanks for the article. I have a question, wondering if you’ve encountered or thought about this… I too have a mobile coop, and 5 chickens. They typically stay in there and eat kitchen scraps (mixed with straw so they have to search a little) and supplemental feed and water constantly available). Periodically I let them out into our (1/4 acre property, in a development) permaculture oasis backyard. Since we’re going into winter, I have several patches of finished beds (corn/beans/squash, radish/pea/oat/carrot, etc…) and they help themselves to foraging, pooping, and generally messing them. I’m okay with that because right now, my main goal is soil improvement (it’s been a suburban lawn for 20 years up until last year), so go ahead chickens – foraged and scratch!

    That said, I am specifically leaving the old/rotting dead vegetation in these plots to provide homes for overwintering beneficial insects. I’m still learning all about this, and where the beneficals will nest and emerge from in spring… So you see, I feel like I have to choose between allowing the chickens access to this forage or protecting the bug which may next year be my aphid killers.

    Any thoughts?

    Thanks!

    1. Hi Dominic, I’m sorry its taken me so long to see your comment; I think the fires in south eastern Australia have held up comment approval (and all other non-essential activities).
      In response to your question: as you’ll see as this series on chicken keeping unfolds, one of the points I wanted to make is that most of us are trying to accommodate chickens in ecosystems (our backyards) that are simply not complex enough/rich enough to accommodate them, with the result that the ecosystem becomes depleted. Loss of insect habitat is one aspect of that.
      It may not be what you wanted to hear, but I think the answer is yes, you do have to choose between allowing the chickens to forage and preserving the insects’ habitat.
      I hope the rest of this series (two more parts to come after this one) will provide more food for thought and perhaps trigger some ideas for having your cake and eating it too… And whatever you come up with, I’d love to hear about it and I’m sure other readers would too — so please comment again if you get the urge :)

  3. Thanks for your article. We have tried so many different ways too – freerange, mobile chicken tractor and fencing. But the one thing with mobile fencing we found the chickens are really clever and very quickly work out ways to get under or over or through the netting (especially with young chicks) thus making the fencing a very ineffective barrier.

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