Every small-scale chicken keeper hopes to keep their birds happy and healthy. We all know that happy, healthy chickens lay the best eggs!
But what does this mean in practical terms? How big should a chicken coop and pen be? How many birds should you consider keeping given the space you have available?
These are important questions to ask if your goal is indeed happy and healthy chickens.
Although it is wonderful to think about allowing your chickens to free range, to come and go as they please, and roost where they like, for the vast majority of circumstances this is an unrealistic option.
For example, where I live, the list of predators looking for a chicken dinner is insanely long. On the wild side it includes coyotes, bears, raccoons, cougars, bobcat, weasels, mink and even wolves. On the domestic side there are neighborhood cats and dogs happy to help themselves. On the wing there are eagles, hawks and owls looking to swoop in day or night if they catch the flock unaware. It’s downright crazy here!
Since I really adore my birds, these losses are just too heartbreaking and I have had no choice but to research options and test out various levels of confinement. I’ve had to modify my original dream of pastured poultry and come up with ways to out-fox the predators but still give the chickens room to just be chickens.
So if you are like me and have to confine your birds at least part of the time, then it is worth trying to figure out how many birds you can comfortably keep in the space you have available. Even small areas can utilize moveable pens with great results, if you plan out how you will rotate the pen around the space. But other times, it is just faster and simpler to build a permanent structure that you clean and care for. I actually use a combination of pens – moveable pens in the summer, and permanent pens in the winter when its too cold to be shifting things around. Regardless of the system, the question of space remains.
How much space does each chicken need?
You can think about “space per bird” as a unit measure that helps you decide how big your overall pen needs to be. Think about your space requirements. While you CAN function in highly crowded conditions, most people prefer to have more personal space. It’s largely the same with chickens. They can be crowded up significantly and still survive, but the more crowded they are the more management issues arise. Crowding makes it more challenging to keep the floor of the pen clean, provide clean food and water, and prevent the spread of diseases.
Opinions on how big a pen should be vary among flock owners along with the principles they apply when managing their birds. Harvey Ussery, author of the book The Small-Scale Poultry Flock, recommends not less than 3 square feet per adult bird, and prefers to use 5 square feet or more as his standard measure. If you Google it, you will find numbers that range from 2 to 10 square feet per bird.
Again, a lot depends on the factors going in to how you want to raise your birds and which breed you are raising. So can you decide what is right for your situation? I have developed the following six questions to help you narrow down the answer AND you can check out my automatic chicken pen calculator for free!
6 Questions to Help You Decide How Much Space Your Chickens Need:
(1) What is the average size of the birds you keep?
It stands to reason that small birds require less space per bird than do large breeds. A small breed like a Silkie or Banty requires a lot less space overall than something like a Jersey Giant. A small flock of Silkies of up to a dozen birds can comfortably live in a 4×8 chicken tractor with the right care, but you would be hard-pressed to keep more than a few Jersey Giants in such a small space.
(2) How old are your birds?
Chicks also take up a lot less space than adult roosters. Often it is important to keep chicks more closely confined to ensure they stay warm enough and have easy access to food and water. That means a pen meant for chicks or young birds, usually needs to be smaller and more finely meshed than a pen meant to house adult chickens. For chicks we more typically talk about 6-7 square inches of space each instead of square feet.
(3) How long will your chickens stay in the pen?
This question has a dramatic impact on the size of pen you should be thinking about. If you are building a coop or pen that will house your chickens 24-7 for many years, that pen needs to provide much more space per bird than a more temporary kind of arrangement. The length of time you will likely keep your birds often depends on whether they are intended as meat birds or laying hens. Consider the following:
Meat Birds: If you are raising commercially-bred meat birds that will be done in 8 to 10 weeks, you can keep the birds in a smaller pen, bearing in mind though that in 10 weeks many of the birds will have reached 10 pounds each.
For me, I raise heritage breeds which take a lot longer – more like 18-26 weeks to reach mature size. My typical strategy is to slowly reduce the number of birds in a given moveable summer pen as they grow by shifting some birds to different pens on the farms. I will, for instance, move the pullets off to new semi-open range pens and keep the roosters in a triangle pen that I move twice daily, usually at about 10 roosters in a 4×8 pen. Then I will cull the largest 4 birds early and let the rest continue to mature, a strategy that I have found maximizes development better than waiting to cull the whole group together. Thus I adjust the number of birds in the pen down as they get larger and larger.
Laying Hens: If, however, your goal is laying hens, the strategy is often quite different. Because you keep laying hens a lot longer than meat birds, it is usually best to plan pen space based on what the adult birds will need.
(4) Are the birds flighty and nervous or calm and easy to handle?
If you are raising a flighty nervous breed, such as Leghorns, then it is wise to provide more square feet per bird to allow them to move away from you easily when you are feeding, cleaning, or collecting eggs from the pen. The added space will reduce the stress on high strung birds and make for a better chicken-keeping experience for you.
If your birds are calm and sociable, then you can get away with a smaller space because the birds will not experience the same kind of handling stress from routine care that flighty birds will.
(5) Is the pen moveable or stationary?
Moveable pens can be smaller than stationary pens because as they are moved to new ground the chickens experience fresh conditions. That being said, stationary or permanent pens can be small on a per square foot per bird basis if you are committed to keeping them very clean. Either way, this question digs at the edges of just how much work you want to be doing.
For my farm, as mentioned earlier, I use permanent winter pens that offer indoor/outdoor options for the birds. These pens are typically 4×8 inside and 4×4 outside. For the larger breeds, these winter pens also open out onto a shared yard such that I can alternate which groups go out on good days to provide additional room and to alleviate winter boredom. But then in the summer, most of my small flocks (I keep at least 10 flocks because I breed my own stock), are shifted out to various types of pens that get moved.
(6) How often will you move a moveable pen?
Although much of what you will read these days talks about moving pens one or two times daily, there are actually a variety of ways to use moveable pens. Yes, some of my pens are moved twice daily. These usually house chicks and growing birds, and because of my predator pressure they need to stay tightly locked up. Moveable pens on a grassy field suit this purpose beautifully and the rapid moving keeps the area clean to let the young birds forage.
But for my older breeding groups, These birds are housed in an open top fenced area with a moveable chicken tractor acting as the coop. I put the coop near the middle of the fenced are and the birds will stay in this enclosure until they have eaten down the vegetation. This usually takes a few weeks during the summer.
Then when the time to move them comes, I just open the fence, slide the tractor down to what will be the middle of the next area to graze, and reset the fence around it. These groups cycle through 3 or 4 such moves before returning to the first spot again. That means I am only moving the house every 2 to 4 weeks depending on the food available in a given spot. What this also means is that the pen portion of this equation (the house part they sleep and lay eggs in) is relatively small – often only 3×6 square feet for 7 or 8 birds – because during the day the birds are ranging in a much larger open pen.
Still Not Sure How Much Space Your Birds Need?
Don’t despair! It can be confusing trying to decide just what you need.
That’s why I created this handy Rose Hill Farm Chicken Pen Calculator! This calculator lets you enter your possible pen dimensions and it will do the math for you based on the square feet per bird you want to achieve.
It’s fun and easy and calculates the numbers right before your eyes! And you can try it for free!
Just Sign Up and start figuring out YOUR specific chicken pen needs with the calculator.