ATTRA - National
Sustainable Agriculture Information Service
In this document, I will describe housing designs that give chickens access to green plants in yards or pastures, as opposed to confinement or bare-yard systems. There are a variety of housing styles commonly used for ranged chickens, each of which is associated with a particular management style that I will also describe.
My wife, Karen, and I have been raising free-range hens in Oregon since 1996 and pastured broilers since 1998. We have 700 hens and will raise over 1,500 broilers this year. We have tried many different techniques, and I hope this will allow me to speak clearly about the key points and trade-offs in each of the major range management styles.
I discuss a variety of housing types in this document. I've necessarily placed an emphasis on the ones I have used myself, since I have a better understanding of these. The detail or sketchiness of different sections will generally correspond to the amount of hands-on experience I have with a particular style and shouldn't be interpreted as a value judgment.
Historically, free range in poultry meant that the chickens were either totally unfenced or were kept in a field so large that the fences had little effect on their movement. This was in contrast to yarding, which uses fences to confine the chickens to a smaller area than they would normally use, or confinement, which denies them any access to the outdoors. More recently, the term "free range" has been stretched and overused so much that its meaning is almost lost. The new term pastured poultry was introduced by Joel Salatin to distinguish birds in pens moved daily to forage on growing plants, as opposed to being kept in confinement or on "mud-yard free-range."
Until sometime in the 1950s, most chickens in the U.S. were raised on a grass range in the spring and summer, usually in portable range shelters that were moved with a tractor from time to time. The cockerels (young male chickens) were sold as broilers, and the pullets (young females) were kept for egg production. In parts of the country with a mild climate, such as the Pacific Coast, the pullets might be kept on range all winter. In harsher climates they were moved into permanent laying houses in the late fall.
Range provided the growing chickens with plenty of room. Sunshine and green plants gave them high levels of vitamins. The dispersed nature of free-range flocks minimized disease, parasites, and crowding-related behavioral problems, none of which could be treated effectively at the time. The chicken manure was applied directly to the pasture, orchard, or cropland on which the chickens were housed. The chickens provided some of their own feed by foraging.
Some housing designs are much more windproof than others, for no readily apparent reason, though lower, heavier houses will generally be more windproof than taller, lighter houses. If possible, always choose a design that someone else has tested for at least a year in exposed locations.
Staking down the houses works quite well, but this is tedious in houses that are moved frequently. Staking down just one corner of the house has worked well for me.
Impact on production
Heat and cold
Mature chickens are very resistant to low temperatures, but production will suffer, especially if their drinking water freezes or if they do not have a wind-proof area in which to sleep.
Turf destruction and parasite build-up
The method chosen to deal with this problem has a profound effect on housing design. With portable houses, the chickens are moved to a new spot before the damage becomes too great. With fixed houses, a design that allows multiple yards to be used alternately will make it possible for the turf to recover in the idle yards.
Broiler chickens are placed on pasture as early as two weeks of age (young enough that they literally don't know enough to come in out of the rain), and they are slaughtered at 6-10 weeks. Chickens are not fast learners. The pasture pen provides them with a consistent environment and does not require that they learn new behaviors as they grow. Similarly, the grower is provided with a simple set of chores that does not vary from day to day. Because of this, the system of daily-move pens is probably the easiest for the newcomer to master.
The system uses a floorless pen without litter or perches. This leaves the chickens vulnerable to chilling if there is any surface runoff during rains, which limits the seasons and places in which this technique can be used.
Most growers use daily-move pens only during the warm season, but I have raised broilers in them in January, and we have twice over-wintered breeding flocks of turkeys in daily-move pens, without significant problems. Our winters are mild but very wet (average January temperatures are 39ºF; average January rainfall is 12 inches).
The difficulties people encounter with this method of broiler rearing center largely around house design and are discussed below.
Goals of Pen Design
Examples of Pasture Pens
Wood Frame, Aluminum Roof/Walls
Access is from the top. The back half of the roof is permanently attached, but two lift-off hatches cover the front half. One hatch is covered with aluminum sheeting, while the other is covered with chicken wire for extra ventilation in hot weather. Daily servicing of feed and water can be done by reaching into the pen, without climbing in. Broilers will not fly out of such a pen, but standard-breed chickens and turkeys will when the hatch is open.
The pen is normally equipped with one bell waterer and one 4–5-foot feed trough, and stocked with 90 broilers. The trough feeder can be set on the ground or suspended from the roof. The pen is so low that it is difficult to use hanging tube feeders effectively.
To move the pen, Salatin places a custom-built dolly, which resembles a hand truck, under the back end of the pen, raising it up a few inches into the air. He then walks around the front of the pen, drags it forward until the entire pen is on clean grass, and removes the dolly. Attempting to move the pen without a dolly can break both your back and the pen, since the rear wall will snag on every obstruction. Also, slow-moving broilers are sometimes run over by the rear wall of the pen; without the dolly they can be bruised or killed. If the rear wall is raised up by the dolly, such broilers will pop out unharmed to the outside, where they can be caught and returned to the pen.
Wood Frame, Steel Roof, Tarp Walls
This house is framed out of 1x4 and 2x3 lumber, banged together with nails that are clinched over on the inside. Galvanized steel roofing is used on the permanently attached back half of the roof. Steel roofing is much stiffer than aluminum, and the roof adds a great deal of stiffness to the pen as a whole. This allowed me to eliminate all 12 of the diagonal braces in Salatin's design.
Two walls go all the way to the ground, forming skids, while the other two walls are built above the skids, 3½ inches in the air. This prevents the back wall from dragging on the ground, making the pen very easy to move without a dolly. To prevent the broilers from escaping from under the walls, and to keep predators out, flaps of black rubber carpet protector were stapled along the full width of the two elevated walls.
The front half of the roof is a light frame of 2x2 lumber covered with chicken wire, which in turn is covered with aluminized bubble insulation (sold under trade names such as Tekfoil and Astrofoil). In the warm season, when we rarely have wind, this panel is simply placed on top of the pen. In the cool season, it is held down with straps attached to bungee cords. The front roof panel will blow off if not tied down, but otherwise the design is completely windproof.
Salatin's pen has several features designed for his hot-summer climate. This includes the open section in the roof and the use of reflective aluminum roofing on the walls. Our farm is in the Coast Range of Western Oregon, which has cool summers, with an average temperature in July and August of only 69ºF. For our climate, the roof does not need to be vented, and walls of colored tarps over chicken wire can be used without introducing disastrous amounts of heat gain.
In a hotter climate, reflective silver tarps or sheet metal would make a more appropriate wall. Reducing the area covered by tarps to expose more chicken wire will also be helpful, provided that the chickens always have adequate shade. A vent along the rear wall, just under the roof, would also help in hot weather. A hinged board could be used as a cover, which would be opened in the morning and closed in the evening.
Lightweight Cattle Panel Frame, Tarp Walls
Karen's idea was to make a walk-in pen, which is more convenient to the farmer than a step-in pen. It is also simple, inexpensive, easy to build, and very pleasant to service. Low pens involve some bending and lifting to remove, fill, and replace feed troughs. Taller pens can accomodate hanging tube feeders, which do not need to be removed when the pen is moved. All the equipment is accessible, and the chickens are more visible than in low-roofed houses. These hoophouse pens have never shown any sign of blowing over or shifting position during three years of use in exposed locations. (We have no idea why our hoophouses don't blow over and other, more conventional hoophouses do.)
Lightweight cattle panels are 52 inches wide and 16 feet long. A two-panel house is 8 feet 8 inches long and between 7 and 9 feet wide (a three-panel house would be 13 feet long). The height of the hoop itself is a couple inches less than 6 feet if the house is 8 feet wide. The skids add another two inches of height. A two-panel house, 8 feet wide, has 69 square feet of floor area, about the same as my 8x8 pasture pen, and about half the size of Salatin's pens. A three-panel house would have 104 square feet.
The wooden bottom frame is made from 2x4 lumber, with two skids and two sills. The sills are notched and attached to the skids with lag bolts. Notching the sills reduces the gap under the front and back walls to about 1¾ inches, which is effective in preventing chicks from escaping and raccoons from entering. However, a smaller gap means that the house will snag on smaller obstructions.
The front and back are framed from 1x4 lumber or sections of lightweight cattle panels cut into shape with bolt cutters and lashed in place with wire. The back is covered with a tarp. In summer, an open area is left between the back wall and the roof to provide additional ventilation. The front is covered with 1-inch chicken wire, and has a doorway placed in the middle to allow access. Hinged doors have proved difficult, since the house warps when moved and the doors tend to bind. Lift-out hatches have been more trouble-free.
The house is covered with plastic tarps. Silver tarps are better than the cheaper kinds. Multiple layers of tarp are probably a good idea, especially at the top. It is difficult to achieve a tidy-looking installation with standard-sized tarps, but the houses are extremely comfortable for both the farmer and the chickens.
Karen has also used these houses for turkey flocks, suspending 2x4 roosts from the roof of the house. The only difficulty has been that, once turkeys approach sexual maturity, the toms will attempt to break out to attack the toms in adjacent pens, and they will eventually make holes in the tarps and even in chicken wire. They can be held in with heavy-duty 1-inch chicken wire if it is attached very securely with a combination of poultry staples and wire or tie wraps. We have found 2-inch chicken wire to be entirely inadequate.
PVC Pipe Frame, Tarp Roof/Walls
Karen's first stand-up pasture pen was a 10x12 foot PVC house. It was light and airy, comfortable for the birds, and extremely easy to move. It was very inexpensive to build, since we got the pipe for free, and cost around $50.
However, it blew away in moderate winds, and the pipe joints broke constantly. The weight of a bell waterer was enough to cause the structure to sag. The pen was quickly rendered useless by repeated damage caused by moderate winds. Had we built the pen lower, it would have blown around less, but it would still have been unacceptably weak for use in our exposed location.
Some growers have reported excellent results with PVC pens, while others have reported experiences similar to ours. Filling the pipes with water makes the pens more windproof, but also makes them harder to move and doesn't make them any stronger.
I would recommend that you not be the first person on your block to test a PVC design, but if you find a proven model that holds up under similar conditions to yours, by all means use it - but copy it exactly. If you do experiment with PVC pens, handle them gently and stake them down each time you move them.
A machine-portable house is basically a building on skids. The methods of construction vary. Some people build greenhouses on skids. Some build tents on skids. I build sheds on skids, with wooden frames, plywood sides, and metal roofs.
It is possible to put houses on wheels rather than skids, but this complicates the design if you don't have a suitable trailer or wagon already. A wheeled house can roll downhill when you don't want it to, while a house on skids stays where you put it. Any tractor can pull quite a large skid-mounted house. Dragging a skid-mounted house across a pasture doesn't damage the turf.
The Salatin method of pasture pen confinement does not work well with machine-portable housing. Moving a floorless pen with the birds inside must be done carefully and gently, which is hard to do with a tractor. Because of this, machine-portable housing inevitably involves a management system that gives the birds access to the outdoors. If the house is floorless, the birds must be shooed outside before the house can be moved safely. If it has a floor, the house can be moved with the birds inside, but the presence of the floor means that their only access to forage is outdoors. Either way, outdoor access becomes necessary.
Once the chickens have access to the outdoors, the advantage of the daily move is reduced, since the chickens do not run out of forage so quickly. I have heard of machine-portable houses being moved anywhere from once every three days to once a year, depending on how fast the chickens destroy the nearby turf and how much turf destruction you are willing to put up with.
Large flocks can be kept with machine-portable housing. Joel Salatin keeps a flock of 1,000 hens in a single large hoophouse, which he moves every three days. I keep 700 hens in 14 small colony houses, which I move every three months.
To give the chickens outdoor access, the house needs pop-holes (chicken-sized doorways)—in general, the more, the better. If the pop-holes are too narrow or too few in number, chickens who want to go in and out will be blocked by others lounging around in the doorway. Also, high-traffic areas lead to unnecessary mud and manure build-up. My machine-portable houses are open for at least half their full width—4 feet of doorway for 50 chickens. Even so, you can sometimes see the entire doorway blocked by a crowd of inconsiderate chickens, with a group of frustrated birds pacing back and forth looking for a way through.
Benefits of Machine-Portable
Some machine-portable housing is too specialized to yield the full range of benefits, but the possibility of a general-purpose house that lasts 20 or 30 years is worth considering.
Styles of Machine-Portable
All-season houses, in contrast, tend to be open on only one side, with closable vents or windows for cross-ventilation in the summer. Insulation is helpful both summer and winter. All-season houses are more commonly used as brooder houses and hen houses than as broiler houses. Chicks need more protection from the cold, and hens lay year-round, whereas most pastured broilers are raised only during the warm season.
Floored vs. Floorless Houses
Disadvantages of a floor:
Traditional range housing used floors in brooder houses, to isolate the chicks from wetness and rats, but used floorless houses for older birds.
The main advantages of floorless houses are low cost and the elimination of manure pitching. Instead of removing manure from the house, the house is removed from the manure. Once the house is moved, the manure can be left where it is or spread over the pasture. I use a rear scraper blade on my tractor to spread the manure. This causes very little damage to the turf.
Roosts can be used as an alternative to litter in a floorless house. By sleeping on the roosts, the birds stay clean and dry. However, broilers are usually slaughtered before they are old enough to have a fully developed roosting instinct.
In egg production, litter is useful for keeping the hens' feet clean. Depending on your setup, this may require that you use litter on the entire floor, or just in the vicinity of the nest boxes.
Litter works perfectly well in a floorless house, as long as it doesn't become so deep that it's impossible to move the house without shoveling out the litter and manure first. I brooded all my chicks in floorless houses for years. I blocked the gap between the skids with boards and added about 4 inches of litter. Ironically, I never had trouble from rats until I switched to concrete-floored brooder houses.
Frequency of Moving
If one can tolerate a certain amount of turf destruction, the time between moves will be determined by the state of the inside of the chicken house or the state of the range.
The house must be moved if the manure inside becomes too disgusting or too deep. In a floorless, litterless, roost-less house, the manure becomes disgusting in a day or two, because the chickens have to sleep in it. If you provide something to separate the birds from the manure (litter, roosts, wire, or slats), the time between moves can be greatly extended. My houses have to be moved about once every three months, which is the time it takes for the manure to build up to the height of the skids.
The amount of turf damage depends on the stocking density and the weather. I have found that using generous amounts of perimeter fencing reduces pasture damage dramatically. Last summer, I fenced 150 pullets into a quarter-acre area (giving a stocking density of 600 birds per acre), and they destroyed the pasture in a few weeks. Expanding the fencing to give a density of about 100 birds per acre caused pasture damage to cease except in areas within a few feet of houses and feeders.
House size also has an effect on the frequency of moves. Dividing the flock between several small houses, widely separated, will cause far less pasture damage than putting the flock in one big house.
It turns out that you can move their houses a short distance without confusing them. But if you move a house too far, the chickens will sleep on the ground where the house used to be. When this happens, you will have to catch the chickens after dark and put them into the houses. And again the next night. It can take several nights before they all start sleeping in the houses again.
Here is my method of moving hen houses: When dealing with an inexperienced group of hens, I try to move their houses very short distances at first, little more than the width of the house. Scraping or shoveling the manure from the old house site, or sprinkling it with lime, will help prevent the chickens from recognizing it. After their home has been moved a couple of times, I can cover fifty feet or more per move without confusing the hens. It is best to move the house early in the day, to give them more time to get used to its new position. Moving it just before dark is a bad idea.
While this method does not allow me to make dramatic long-distance moves, it gets the hens onto clean grass, which is all I need.
I have not tried this method with broilers.
There are two alternative methods. One is to move the house with the chickens inside, and to move it a long way, so the chickens can't find their way back to where they were yesterday. In this case, their chicken house is the only thing in the neighborhood that looks like home, so they will go inside at night without any trouble. Some producers lock the birds in temporarily. The other is to have a portable net fence that moves when the houses move, so the hens are physically prevented from going back to their previous home.
Examples of Machine-Portable
My most recent henhouses all have very low roofs (a little over 4 feet high) to eliminate blow-over in heavy winds. My older houses have roofs around 6½ feet high.
I developed the low-house configuration by accident, when a storm blew two houses over, ripped their roofs off, and shattered everything above the 4-foot line. By nailing the roofs back onto the remaining structure, the low house was born. I discovered that these houses were completely windproof, were comfortable for the hens, and were not as awkward for me to work in as I had expected, so I built some more.
Taller houses work perfectly well so long as they are staked down to prevent blow-over
My houses are partway between a summer house and an all-season house. Only one side is fully open, but all four sides have gaps at the roofline, and no insulation is used. Winter egg production plummets whenever daytime highs are below freezing for several days in a row, but the health of the hens is not affected during a week of weather with highs in the teens. This house is too open for all-season use in cold climates.
The house has no doors, windows, floor, or chicken wire. The front wall is only 16 inches high, and the chickens hop to the top of this wall to go into or out of the house. Electric fence wire is attached near the bottom of the house with nail-on insulators. This prevents predators from squeezing in under the skids or climbing the front wall. The wire makes doors unnecessary for predator control.
A person working alone can easily build such a house in a day, with time for other chores. The design uses very little cutting; most materials are used full-length.
I frame and sheathe the two non-skid-side walls using 2x4 sills and 2x4 studs on 4-foot centers. (Framing with a two-foot stud spacing would give a stronger house.) For sheathing I use 3/8-inch plywood or 7/16-inchOSB (waferboard), whichever is cheaper. When a wall is finished, I raise it and place it across the two skids, and spike it into place with long nails.
The walls along the skids (the front and back walls) are formed by nailing the plywood to the skid and to the end studs of the side walls. Once the plywood is up, I attach the middle studs to the front and back walls, using right-angle nail plates instead of toenailing.
To attach the roof, I make purlins from 2x4s on edge, attaching them to the studs with ¼-inch carriage bolts. There are no rafters. Lengths of galvanized steel roofing 10 feet long are nailed directly to the purlins, using roofing nails or screws with rubber washers. Roofing screws are supposed to have a much better grip than nails.
Diagonal braces are used between the skids and the sills of the other two walls. I have found 18-inch lengths of 1x4 to be adequate.
The house can be towed by running chains under the sills and attaching them to the diagonal braces, or eyebolts can be put into the skids, or ¾-inch holes can be bored through the skids and loops of rope attached to them. Eyebolts on the front of the skids tend to pull out, but ones on the sides will stay put.
High Houses and Low Houses
Roosting Houses and Nesting Houses
Separate nesting and roosting houses reduce labor, since egg collection is much faster if the nests are all in one place. It also promotes cleaner eggs, since little manure is dropped in the nesting houses, the straw litter on the floor stays clean almost indefinitely, and clean litter tends to wipe the hens' feet as they enter. The nesting houses are kept much darker than the roosting houses, reducing problems with egg-eating.
The roosting houses are more open. Litter is not used on the floor (the hens rarely walk on the floor; they walk on the roosts). I enter the house only to see if there are any floor eggs or sick hens.
In systems using large houses, oldtimers often divided the house into three areas: the nesting room (a darkened room with nest boxes and a litter floor), the roost area (which held roosts over a droppings pit), and the feed area (feeders and waterers on a litter floor).
Wood Frame, Tarp Roof
Beck-Chenoweth makes full use of his floor, moving the house with the broilers inside.
Like most poultry producers with machine-portable pens, Beck-Chenoweth does all feeding and watering outdoors, with the feeders and waterers placed next to the house at first, then gradually shifted farther away as the broilers grow, to encourage foraging. The doors are closed at night to prevent predation. Because the house has no feed or water, it is important to open the doors first thing in the morning, because broilers do not tolerate long periods without water. (More and more growers are providing water inside the houses.)
Like other lightweight structures, hoophouses can be quite susceptible to wind. The typical hoophouse is intended to be anchored securely to the ground with posts set in concrete, and putting them on skids removes this protection. Choosing a model that is relatively low and squat will help reduce its tendency to blow away, as will adding extra weight and staking the house down. As always, it is safer to copy a proven layout than to experiment on your own. A grower not far from me with a thriving layer operation quit the business after his hoophouses blew away in a sudden windstorm.
One of Salatin's hoophouses, his "Ewego," which is used as a sheep shelter, is 30 feet wide and only 11 feet tall, and the ends are kept closed to within 4 feet of the ground to prevent it from blowing away (4).
Salatin uses a large hoophouse containing 1,000 hens with a perimeter fence that encloses only a quarter-acre, which is quite small for such a large flock. He moves the house and the fence every three days. His feeders and waterers are tethered to the house so he can move both house and equipment in a single operation.
The difficulty of combining poultry range with fixed housing is that the yard near the house is almost inevitably over-manured and scratched to pieces, surrounding the house with a barren, muddy, polluted yard. The speed with which this happens often amazes backyarders and commercial producers alike.
It is difficult to find a successful example in this country of fixed houses combined with green range. The practice tends to be successful for a year or two, until the over-manuring starts making it hard for plants to grow.
Traditional solutions to this problem involve the use of multiple yards and frequent plowing, liming, and replanting of the denuded areas. Scraping away the top layer of soil and replacing it may be necessary from time to time. Alternatively, a transition zone can be created. Gutters on the house are essential to reduce muddiness in the yards.
In seasonal operations, the yards can be plowed and planted to a cover crop for the off-season, to bury as many pathogens and use up as many excess nutrients as possible. Ideally, the cover crop should be harvested and removed, so the excess nutrients are not recycled back into the yard. This can be as simple as attaching a bagger to a mower and removing the grass clippings.
To get the production advantages of fixed housing, feed and water must be provided indoors, but this will reduce ranging. To encourage ranging, make shade, water, and food available outdoors as well. Exit doors should be plentiful and wide enough that they can't be blocked by one or two hens.
Not only the chickens, but the feed requires some kind of housing to protect it from the elements.
Putting feeders and waterers into the houses with the chickens
is perhaps the simplest method. This works best when the house
is designed for easy access by someone with a sack of feed over
his shoulder. One method for indoor feeding is to have a feed
bin that holds several sacks of feed and can be filled from outside
the house. This bin would have a second lid inside the house that
allows access to the feed. A feed scoop would be used to fill
If you don't like carrying feed to the pasture once or twice a day, range feeders become attractive. Range feeders have lids and rain shields that prevent the feed from becoming wet. The larger range feeders can be filled by someone standing on the tailgate of a pickup truck. In this case, the feed is loaded at the feed store and unloaded directly into the feeders, reducing handling to a minimum.
However, my experience is that range feeders are not a panacea. The ground around them becomes muddy, and the feeders themselves may not be 100% rainproof. Furthermore, the chickens don't like going out into the sun when it's hot, and don't like going out into the rain when it's cold. Providing shelter will make them more comfortable while eating, and this will help production.
Pastured or range broilers are usually stocked at a density of about 1¼ square feet per bird for all kinds of housing. This corresponds to about 5 pounds live weight per square foot. Using this latter number allows you to calculate the amount of space needed for broilers of any size.
For hens, the density varies:
Giving more space than the minimum amount recommended almost always makes management easier, but is less profitable because there are fewer birds.
ATTRA is the national sustainable agriculture information service operated by the National Center for Appropriate Technology under a grant from the Rural Business-Cooperative Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture. These organizations do not recommend or endorse products, companies, or individuals. NCAT has offices in Fayetteville, Arkansas (P.O. Box 3657, Fayetteville, AR 72702), Butte, Montana, and Davis, California.