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    Penned or free range chickens

    Authored by Gail Damerow

    Should you keep your chickens penned or let them free range? What exactly does penned mean, and what is free range? Do some breeds do better penned versus free range? Let’s explore the difference between penning and free ranging your chickens.

    What does "penned" chicken mean?

    Penned chickens are confined to a yard surrounded by a fence that keeps the chickens in and predators out. Usually the yard, or pen, is small enough to allow cover over the top. A cover, whether solid or open wire, prevents predators from climbing or flying in. A pen offers chickens a safe place to enjoy the sunshine, fresh air, and exercise they need to remain healthy.

    As many advantages as a pen offers, it has one big disadvantage. Chickens destroy the ground cover by pecking at it, scratching it up, pulling it up, and covering it with droppings.

    The smaller the yard, the quicker it will turn to either hardpan or mud, depending on the climate. Since chickens are most active near their shelter, denuding starts around the entrance and continues progressively outward.

    The larger the yard, the better the survival rate of at least some vegetation. A spacious pen provides 8 to 10 square feet (about the area of a bathtub) per chicken. 

    What is a free range chicken?

    The term “free range” implies chickens have complete freedom to forage in a large area. Free range chickens generally spend a significant portion of their lives outdoors, exploring and finding nutritious things to eat. Free ranging is most often seen in rural areas.

    My chickens, for instance, free range in our goat pastures. They exit the coop as soon as the pophole opens in the morning. Usually, they don’t go back inside until dusk. An exception is during the hottest part of summer days, when they duck inside for siesta. They often stay outside even when it’s raining.

    Free range chickens are generally less well protected from predators than penned chickens. That’s because the forage area is too vast for overhead cover.

    Chickens venture farther from the coop if their yard is not entirely open. They will seek protection from hot sun, blowing winds, and flying predators where trees or shrubs are available. Chickens are also attracted by insects associated with trees and shrubs, as well as any leaves and fruits they drop. 

    In a large yard with no trees, you can encourage more widespread foraging by installing one or more small shelters that offer shade and overhead cover. Including a waterer in the shelter will ensure its use.

    If the perimeter fence is 100 feet or more from the coop and the yard has no trees, station a basic shelter about every 60 feet. By encouraging chickens to forage farther from home, protective trees or small shelters reduce their impact around the coop doorway.

    Another choice is to have a movable coop, which preserves vegetation by allowing regrowth with each coop move. Either way, to keep the ground tidy and safe, you’ll need to mow occasionally. How often depends on the climate, time of year, and number of chickens.

    Forage rotation for backyard flocks

    Where the chickens live in a fixed coop, constant use of a single yard will not only denude the ground but concentrate pathogens and parasites in the soil. An easy way to deal with that problem is to create more than one pen or paddock (small field) and let the chickens into only one at a time.

    Periodic rotation gives each outdoor area a rest. This system works only if you can successfully keep the chickens out of the resting pens or paddocks, which means no flying over or ducking under fences. Each separate pen or paddock needs its own entrance to the coop.

    While the chickens are in one area, recondition and reseed the previously used area. You might switch areas every six months or once a year, depending on what you plant and the time of year it grows best in your area. The chickens may destroy the ground cover in the used area, but the rested area will regrow and be sanitized, thanks to sunshine.

    How to choose penned or free range for your flock

    Active breeds are suitable for free range because they forage aggressively and easily evade predators. Docile breeds, on the other hand, generally do better when penned, because they don’t take full advantage of forage and they respond less quickly to danger. 

    Also, not suitable for free range are breeds with heavy leg feathering or large crests. Leg feathers inhibit scratching the ground to turn up food. And these breeds often can’t move as quickly to evade predators.

    Crests offer head protection in cold weather but inhibit vision, making crested breeds easier prey. And crests may freeze in wet winter weather.

    In freezing weather, breeds with tight combs — such as cushion, pea, or rose — cope with the cold better than breeds with large single combs. If you want to free range your birds, choose a breed suitable for your prevailing climate. 

    Breeds that do well free range

    Breeds that are most suitable for free range include:

    • American Game Bantam
    • Ancona
    • Andalusian
    • Bielefelder
    • Minorca
    • Old English Game
    • Welsumer

    Breeds that also do well under free range management include Ameraucana, Araucana, Australorp, Brahma, Buckeye, Chantecler, Delaware, Dominique, Jersey Giant, Lakenvelder, Leghorn, Marans, Modern Game, Naked Neck (with plenty of shade to prevent sunburn), New Hampshire, Orpington, Plymouth Rock, Rhode Island Red, Sussex, and Wyandotte.

    Free range considerations and watch-outs

    Even among free range suitable breeds, some varieties are less suitable for free ranging because of their plumage color. Chickens with white feathers more easily attract predators Feather colors other than white blend more easily with the environment.

    On the same note, predators tend to select the most conspicuous chicken — the one that stands out as being different from the others. So, the first chicken to be nabbed will be the oddball in the crowd. A predator has more trouble selecting a single individual from among several that essentially all look alike. Keep plumage color in mind when selecting chickens for free range.

    While penning offers better protection from predators, free ranging provides more exercise options and nutritional benefits. Ultimately, the decision whether to keep your chickens penned or allow them to free range depends on the amount of land you have available and your tolerance for potential losses to predation.

    More backyard flock tips

    Raising chickens doesn't mean you have to lack in gardening - these two work really well together. Find out more about gardening with a backyard flock.
    Keep your flock safe and secure with chicken fencing. Learn about permanent options and moveable fencing.