Pros and Cons of Free Range and Mobile 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 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 a backyard. But if you were approaching it from a Permaculture perspective (a holistic perspective) you'd 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 good use.
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're using as our model.
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's lacking in a monoculture or in a less integrated system.
With this concept in mind, here are:
- The pros and cons we’ve found with free-range chickens and with mobile 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 up in Part 2),
- and some of the ideas we have for ensuring they're as busy and well fed there as they were when they were out foraging for themselves (Part 3).
Our first chicken keeping experience – free range
We were living in Colorado when we got our first chickens. At that time 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 neighbors – so other than the issue of predation, there was no reason to fence the chickens in.
Predation, however, turned out to 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 recognize 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.
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 few years later, back in Australia and after a few other chicken-keeping scenarios, we decided that mobile pens would be the way to go.
We bought two rolls of portable white electrifiable chicken netting. With these, we could fence our chickens into moveable areas of endlessly 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.)
At this time, 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.
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 de-bugging, 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 realized, 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.
But first, the mobile pen pros and cons.
Mobile 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.
- 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 organize a more nutrient-dense smorgasbord for them.
Veggie garden contribution to chickens: providing some of their food needs, providing exercise, making healthier eggs and happier chickens.
Mobile 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 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 did NOT want them in. Not good.
Coming up next
Coming up in Part 2, I'll explain why we've decided to try confining our chickens in a large deep litter run.
I’ll share what we’ve found to be the pros and cons of deep litter, and why we’re optimistic that this arrangement will push us into much better chicken management and a healthier, better integrated farm ecosystem.