A joy of keeping a backyard chicken run is watching hens frolic outdoors. Spending time in the fresh air gives birds a chance to sunbathe, dust their feathers, flap their wings, run, and enjoy dining on tasty green shoots and the protein-rich insects. The best housing for a small flock includes a sturdy coop that protects birds from the weather, predators, and biting insects plus a run where they can enjoy the pleasures and healthful benefits of being outside.
A well-managed run should have a sturdy pop hole door connecting the coop with the run. Most chicken predators work the night shift, so closing the door in the evening when the chickens have come home to roost and opening it the next morning keep the birds safe while frustrating hungry raccoons.
An outdoor run should be enclosed with fencing high and stout enough to keep hens from escaping while excluding dogs, foxes, and other predators seeking dinner. As a general rule heavy brown egg laying breeds, like Orpingtons, Rocks, and Wyandottes can’t fly over a four-foot fence, but Leghorns and many other white egg laying active breeds can easily flap over it. Confining these aerialists requires either a higher fence or a totally covered run.
Just how big should a run be? Most chicken experts recommend four square feet of coop floor per bird housed but few give advice on run size. That’s probably because it is usually determined by the size and topography of a yard. Within reason bigger is better. The more outdoor square feet per hen the more able the land is to grow green grasses and flowers that make it attractive, eliminate mud, and provide tasty grazing for the girls.
Careful management of the run prevents bare soil, erosion, and odor while providing hens nutritious supplemental free food. Following are some management tips for runs of various size.
A tiny run about the size of the coop gives hens the opportunity to get outside and enjoy exercise, sunshine and fresh air. Unfortunately, chickens will quickly devour all vegetation, leaving the run’s soil bare. It’s impossible to keep it vegetated but these tips will reduce odor and mud.
• A couple of times a year spade or rototill the soil. Tilling in a few inches of sand may help drainage.
• Use a square point shovel to skim off the top couple of inches of soil. It’s filled with nutrient-rich manure that can be dug into the garden or composted.
• Add a modest quantity of lawn clippings in the summer and dried leaves in fall. Chickens delight in scratching them around, and they’ll eat some of the clippings. Rake out leaves that get compacted. They will be manure-rich and make great mulch around trees.
Medium Size Run
A medium size run four or five times the square footage of the coop gives the birds more opportunity to explore, exercise, and forage. Usually it’s still small enough that hens will eliminate all vegetation and leave bare soil.
A simple management solution ensures that they always have green grass to forage on. Use four-foot wire mesh fencing, held upright by a few steel fence posts, to divide the run in half. Make a simple gate so the birds can access only one side. Scatter fast growing grass seed in the birdless half. Annual ryegrass is ideal. It’s inexpensive and, given enough moisture, grows quickly in the run’s rich soil. Once the grass is a few inches tall urn the hens in and exclude them from the previously used run. Then heavily seed its bare soil. Using this rotation system keeps the hens on a carpet of greenery throughout the growing season. Eating green grass results in deep orange egg yolks that most people like, and grass attracts protein rich insects that the birds readily devour.
A Large Run
The very best run is ten or more times the square footage of the coop. It’s so big that foraging chickens can’t denude all the vegetation. There’s no need to divide the run in half, as grass and other plants grow at least as fast as the hens can eat them.
Seeding the run will increase its ability to feed hens and make the run attractive. An ideal planting mixture is a combination of grass, buckwheat, and turnip or radish seed. Chickens love eating grass, but they shun buckwheat greenery and only pick at turnip and radish greens. Buckwheat produces white flowers in midsummer that attract a constant stream of insects. Chickens don’t eat the blooms but devour the bugs the blooms attract. Turnips and radishes produce fleshy roots that grow partly out of the soil. Fall frosts soften and sweeten them into chicken treats.
Bags of buckwheat, turnip, and radish seed are sold in sporting goods stores to hunters who plant food plots for deer. Usually the bags are blends of seeds that work well in chicken runs.
Chicken Run Amenities
Small runs don’t have much room to add chicken amenities, but medium and large runs can be made more interesting and safer for chickens by adding a few items. Providing overhead protection is important. On hot days chickens love to rest in the shade, and daytime danger comes most often from raptors flying over or perched in nearby trees.
There are two easy ways to provide overhead cover. Shrubs work well, and one of the best is the otherwise weedy mulberry. Mulberries seem to sprout everywhere and eventually grow into medium sized trees. However, training a young mulberry by continually clipping off vertical shoots will cause it to grow a thick horizontal mass of small branches. These cast a dense shade and protect the birds from hawks. Mulberries produce an enormous number of sweet purplish berries in early summer that chickens love to eat. Many other shrubs also work will in a run.
Another way to provide shade and overhead predator protection is to simply drag an old picnic table into the run. Or, scrounge a pallet and nail a three- or four-foot length of two by fours in each corner, making a sort of table.
A couple of pallets a few feet above ground level give hens safety, but there can be a problem. If shrubs, pallets, or picnic tables are close to the fence even heavy, poor flying breeds will hop up on them and then easily flap over the fence. It’s best to locate shrubs and picnic tables toward the center of the run.
Chickens love being outside on pleasant days and having a well-managed run adjacent to the coop adds to their pleasure and can provide free feed.