Though the iconic mental picture most of us get when it comes to raising chickens is the standard coop and run, there are many methods for raising chickens. Here’s a quick overview of your options:
- Coop and Run. A dwelling for the chickens with an attached, enclosed cage allowing the birds some outdoor space.
- Chicken Tractor. A small but moveable pen which is rotated around a pasture, usually every week.
- Truly Free Range. Allowing birds to find their own food, water and shelter on your property.
- Pastured Poultry in Pens. Similar to a chicken tractor but much larger and moved more often (i.e., twice daily).
- Pastured Poultry in Paddocks. Chickens rotate through several paddocks planted with food chickens can self-harvest.
About the Options
Each of these methods have their pros and cons. To be completely transparent, I’m not here to tell you about all the pluses of each option – if you want to know the pros, you’ll want to do some extra research.I’m here to talk to you about the option we’re using: Pastured poultry in paddocks. However, to adequately tell you why I believe #5 is the best option, I have to talk a bit about the challenges of the first four so you’ll understand how using paddocks addresses the limitations of those other options. Brace yourself – the negativity is about to get a little deep for a paragraph or two here.
The Coop and Run method is first. The problem here mostly be summed up on one word I repeatedly tell my seven-year-old not to say at the dinner table: Poop. In a Coop and Run system, lots and lots of poop piles up in one location. The result is a stinky mess and a flock that lives (walks, sits, eats, drinks) in pathogens from their own feces. (Doesn’t that sound appetizing?) Even when chickens have access to the outdoors (the Run) there’s still a messy accumulation of poop. Also, the chickens completely obliterate any green vegetation that used to exist in the pen. So in essence, these birds live in a poop hole and a mud pit. This is not good. #drops the mic
With all of that accumulation of yuck, at some point you’re going to have to clean it up. Which means either a) you’re constantly cleaning up after chickens or b) you hardly ever clean up after chickens but they live in filth. And as Paul Wheaton points out, when you do clean the coop, all of that yuck is airborne for at least a little while.
Next let’s talk about Chicken Tractors. This is an improvement over the Coop and Run method because there is less accumulation of poo in one area. However, the tractor sizes tend to be on the small size (just because you can put birds in an area that small doesn’t mean you should). Also, the effectiveness of the method depends heavily on how often the tractor is moved. Here’s what Mr. Wheaton has to say about it:
“A few people will move a chicken tractor once or twice per day, such that the chickens will consume about 30% of what is growing in a spot before moving on. This is an improvement over what most people will do which is to leave the chicken tractor in one spot until all vegetation is gone. Or worse, beyond that point. Consider that in general, 40% of what grows on the ground is probably good for chickens to eat. 30% is slightly toxic and the rest is very toxic. If left in one spot for more than a few hours, the chickens end up eating their own poop that has fallen on their ‘food’.”
Our next option is truly free range chickens – as in no coop, no pen, no tractor, no nothing. The challenge here is that we’ve taken on the responsibility to care for these animals but left them vulnerable to predators and possibly lack of available food (depends on what your land is like). In addition, eggs will be laid all over the place and you’ll have no idea how old they are. Aaaand this romantic idea of letting chickens run free like they do in the wild will loose its appeal quickly when your patio furniture and car and lawn mower and dog house and back lawn and swing set and swimming pool are all slathered in chicken droppings.
Onward to Pastured Poultry in Pens. This is similar to a chicken tractor only the pen is larger and moved more often (2 times a day). Less waste accumulates in one spot, and (if you’re really on top of things) the chickens don’t decimate the ground cover before they move. The challenge here is that making it work requires you to move the pen twice day. I don’t even like to answer the phone twice a day, let alone move a big chicken pen around my yard.
Pastured Poultry in Paddocks
Now with all that negativity behind us (where did that sarcastic girl come from?!) let’s sweeten things up a bit! After much reading I have become convinced that using paddocks is the best way to raise chickens.