What is a Chicken Run?
A chicken run is a fenced-off area where chickens can roam during the day. The fencing serves two purposes with each purpose equally as important as the other. The fence keeps the chickens in as well as keeping predators out.
Some chicken keepers use the run as an area where chickens can free-range. Other chicken keepers have a run that can be used to contain chickens but they also let the chickens out of the run to free-range.
Do you need a chicken run?
Chicken runs are a great option in many situations, but not all chicken keepers need a chicken run.
You won't need a chicken run if you are using a chicken tractor and moving it every day.
Some chicken keepers who let their birds free-range may also choose not to have a run. But uncontained chickens cause a lot of damage to gardens and are more likely to be hit by a car or taken by a predator.
If you have a small coop and rely on free-ranging, you still need a run so you can contain your chickens when you need to.
On the other hand, a chicken run that is too small will quickly turn to bare dirt and too many chickens in a small run without enough amusement will often turn to bullying.
For most chicken keepers, having a chicken run is a good choice. In suburban backyards, this allows your birds to free-range without destroying the garden or bothering the neighbours. If you manage the number of birds in your flock and provide lots of amusements (weed piles, toys etc.) then your chickens will be happy!
And even if your birds free-range, having a run is worth its weight in gold when you do want or need to contain your chickens.
Designing a chicken run
Before just adding a fence around the chicken coop, you should consider several things such as the location, the type of ground, the room you should allow and also the quality of the run space for your chickens. Chickens are intelligent birds. Just as a human would get bored and frustrated being locked up in a cage, chickens also need space. Area to roam is good for their mental health as well as their physical health and overall well-being - the more room to roam the better.
Sunlight comes first
Chickens need plenty of sunlight to stimulate the hormones they require to lay eggs. So a chicken run located in a full shaded position is a bad idea if you want fresh eggs from your hens.
Chickens love the sun, but you should also have a shady position for them to escape the sun from the heat of the Australian summer. You can achieve this by having part of the chicken run under some trees or construct a roof over part of the run. We recommend that you place a lubing cup chicken drinker in the shady section of your chook run, so they have access to fresh, clean water for adequate hydration. Remember smaller chicken breeds such as bantams will dehydrate quickly so allow plenty of water access.
Consider the winds
If you live in an area which frequently gets high winds, it is a good idea to find an area that provides shelter. Strong winds and a pen without shelter will mean the chooks will try to stay indoors. If the winds come in from a predictable direction, you can screen off outside the run if you use some dense shrubbery. Windbreaks are a great idea where you can't find a better location for the run.
How big should a chicken run be?
You should at a minimum, allow 10 square feet or around 1 square metre per chicken for an outside run. Remember as we have said previously, chickens love to roam so the more room you can allow for the run size the better. So if you have 10 chickens, the smallest space you should have is 10 square metres. Where possible and if you have room to spare, double it and give them 20 square metres. Remember the more room, the better for all aspects of their health.
When space is too restrictive, it can cause cannibalism, pecking and fighting and may even lead to death. As humans, we know stress causes problems both mentally and physically. Stress also leads to similar problems to your hens.
In a chicken run, space which is too confined leads to stress for the entire flock. While chooks love to be social without question, they also need their own space. Avian Expert Jag Mohan, Central Avian Research Institute notes, (Gross and Siegel, 1981; Craig, 1992; Guhl, 1958) that overcrowding during brooding or rearing in a small, restrictive coop and run will cause social stress among the flock. Stress in chickens leads to physiological symptoms which you can avoid by giving them room to roam more freely. Without space to roam, chickens are found to have impaired growth in bone and cartilage density. They also exhibit stunted physical growth and muscle degradation. There are many other physical signs of stress in chickens but the ones mentioned have a direct correlation to the size of space you allocate for them to roam.
How big should a chicken run fence be?
The fence you construct for your chicken run will serve a dual purpose. It will prevent attacks from predators, and it shall also create a safe, secure roaming space for your chickens.
Foxes, wild dogs and other animals see chickens as a great menu item. If you have such predators around you need a fence which is high enough off the ground as well as one which is buried into the ground to prevent the animal digging underneath for entry.
Chicken Wire & Heavy Duty Knitted Bird Netting
Heavy-gauge galvanised chicken wire and heavy-duty bird net is great for this purpose. Do not use standard light gauge chicken wire as a fox or dog can rip through it. Galvanised heavy gauge chicken wire is made to prevent rust. Start by outlining the boundary of your chicken run. You should position vertical posts at 1.5 - 1.8 metre intervals. Once in place, dig a trench a minimum of 300mm down. Place your first run of lower wire/netting down to the base of the channel and then secure to vertical posts. Backfill the outside of the trench with the lose soil you have excavated. Use rubble or 20mm gravel to backfill inside as a further deterrent to stubborn predators.
If you have baby chicks, then you use a small hole size wire/net to prevent the chicks from getting out.
The bottom of your fence should be double thickness as shown in the image to prevent predators ripping through.
The top of the chicken run fence should be flexible at the top so predators can't perch on it before jumping down.
Heavy-duty knitted bird netting ideal for chicken runs. Black bird netting is almost invisible to the naked eye. Additionally, a frame across the top of your run lets you secure the run to prevent the next type of predator.
Birds of Prey
Ground predators are not the only threat to chickens in Australia. Owls, wedge-tail eagles, hawks will certainly take an interest in chicks if they are hungry. Also, you don't want wild birds coming into the chicken run as they bring with them disease and illness.
Construct a horizontal frame off the vertical posts you have installed and fix black bird net across the top to stop aerial attacks. Use the horizontal frame to also add a roof area. The roof provides shade so your chickens can escape the hot summer sun.
Many chicken farms now use electric fence netting for chicken runs that are moved regularly. But this type of run does not protect chickens from birds of prey and only works if you have guard animals like geese, maremmas or donkeys.
What is the best ground cover for a chicken pen?
Ideally, a perfect chicken run shall incorporate the following:
- Well-drained soil
- Green vegetation
- Dust bath
- Some shade
- Secure fencing
Not enough drainage?
Muddy puddles are a breeding ground for disease and other nasties. So it is vital to select an area where your run will be well-drained to avoid muddy puddles. Sometimes however this may not be possible. In such an instance, use some sleepers to make a box around the perimeter. If you use sand as your ground for the pen it allows for perfect drainage in locations which get serious rain. Another benefit of sand is it is not only affordable, but you can it out and replace it when required quite easily.
Grass and other vegetation
If the area drains well the ultimate in ground covering for the run is grass and other vegetation. It encourages the natural foraging behaviour of chickens. They will love scratching around looking for worms or other insects they can find throughout the day.
Tip - If you are considering grass as the ground cover, you should either make a more than generous chicken pen or use a mobile chicken tractor which allows the hens to be moved to different areas. Too many chickens in a small enclosure or even a minimum size pen will eat and scratch the grass in no time at all. Once again, we come back to size, and the more room they have, the better.
Chickens use a dust bath to clean themselves. You can easily make a chicken dust bath for your hens.
Time needed: 20 minutes.
How to make a dust bath for chickens
- Dig a hole
Find a spot in the chicken pen and dig a hole approx 60cm in diameter and 20cm deep. To prevent soil getting into your dust bath when it rains, once you dig the hole, put a large plastic child's wading pool into the hole and fill with your dust bath mixture.
- Mix clean, dry dirt, fine sand and Diatomaceous Earth
In a wheel-barrow mix 5% diatomaceous earth, 20% fine sand with 75% dry dirt. Chickens love dry dirt as grit. Adding sand to the dry dirt will help prevent the dust bath from clumping when it gets wet. The Diatomaceous Earth helps cleanse your chicken of parasites such as lice and mites.
- Fill the hole
Fill the hole you have made with your dust bath mix of sand, dirt and diatomaceous earth. Your chickens will find it very quickly and love dusting themselves in their bath.
It is recommended not to use mulch/bark for the ground covering of a chicken run as it will become mouldy and also grows fungus as it decays.
Other helpful tips for the chicken run:
- Mosquitoes - If you have a mosquito problem around the run, outside the chicken run fence plant lavender bushes. These bushes are a great natural way to repel mozzies and flies.
- Herbs - Add herbs such as oregano, mint, sage or dry lavender to the dust bath mix to help repel parasites and insects.
- Boredom - Keeping chickens entertained is easy and cheap. Add a mirror or a single bale of straw for your chickens to hop up onto. Also, you can add an extra roost for them to perch on. Spread hay onto the ground, and they will love to forage through it. Put in some stairs, even ones which go from the ground up to a post, the chickens will be excited to explore them.
- Treats - Throw a handful of dried mealworms across the ground as a great protein treat they will love to go looking for. Apple bobbing is another favourite. Core an apple, put some string through it and tie it up to the roof, so it dangles just low enough for them to stretch and peck at it.
If your wondering which came first, the chicken or the egg, we can help. Check out these other handy articles:
- What do wild chickens eat?
- The top 21 chicken jokes
- The best chicken names
- Questions kids ask about chickens
Happy chicken keeping!