Runs vs Pens - and what is possibly the BEST way to keep a flock.....

By fowlsessed · Nov 17, 2013 · Updated Nov 29, 2013 · ·
  1. fowlsessed
    People keep their chickens in as many different setups as you could possibly imagine. And no doubt it can be a task deciding what route you're going to follow. Certainly, some are better than others, even though “what works, works.” Here, I’m going to share with you the very best of them all. It may not work in all situations, of course, but it is probably the most versatile, and if it can be utilized by yourself, then you should 100% try it! We’ll refer to it as “stationary rotational grazing.” When you’re tired of bare and muddy, poop covered runs, high bedding costs, bored chickens living in their filth, and wouldn’t mind a reduction in labor and feed costs, or increased flock health and happiness, then this is what you’re going to want to do:


    HOW IT WORKS: This method provides the same benefits as a “Chicken Tractor,” yet saves you from having to move it all around the yard, which can at times be undesirable, or even impossible for those with small yards that will still get killed down. It also gives you more control over the area the chickens will inhabit, by allowing you to keep them from certain things, plant and care for the area, etc. at your discretion. As a matter of fact, there are two ways that you can do the best way! Here they are:

    #1: The basic idea is to have a series of pens around your coop, at least one on all sides, with a door to and from the coop and each pen. The size of the pens is determined only by the amount of birds you’ll be running in it and how often you will want to move them to another section; the larger the pens and the fewer birds in it, the longer that you can keep them in one pen before they start to wear it down and it’s time to move them. And of course, the opposite holds true; the smaller the run size and the more birds in it, the more often you will be moving them. There are also two ways that you can reduce the impact a large number of birds has on the ground. 1. is to have larger runs. 2. is to have a greater number of smaller pens that the birds are moved through more frequently. I prefer method number one because it's less labor-intensive, and makes it easier to re-seed the pens when they are resting. In addition to making everything else involved quite a bit easier, too. You’ll allow your birds access to one section until it starts to look worn, then move them to the next. As stated, you may re-seed the pens if you wish when the birds are not on them. If using stationary pens (see example #2 below for portable fencing) then I would also recommend you even consider planting some small fruit-bearing bushes or trees. They’ll have all the fresh ground, bugs, seeds, and weeds they can get at without causing trouble on your porch, in the garden, or at the neighbor’s place, as they often do when free-ranging. And you can effectively keep them safe from predators.

    #2: This modification simply involves using a single, portable electric fence (or other fence of your choice). You rotate this run around the coop, gleaning the same effect as above with reduced fencing costs, but increased labor. I prefer method #1, but it is up to you, however, to decide what's the best in your situation.

    The three most common ways that people generally keep their birds are:
    In Stationary pens
    Portable “ Chicken Tractors”

    I prefer the free-ranging, really, but it does have many down falls and often isn’t possible with many.


    The “tractor” is pretty good, but I don’t really feel like dealing with moving it around so often, it's labor-intensive, it limits me to a smaller number of birds, and does not give me as much control over the area the birds are foraging in, although it is possible to have that. Most importantly of all, my property doesn’t have the lay and terrain for that to work!

    A stationary run is generally the least desirable for me. But of course, it often has it’s “pros” and is actually used by me for controlled single-pair breeding. That’s the best thing about it, that it gives you a lot of control.

    Another way that you can keep a flock, which I didn’t mention above because it’s not very popular, is a very large fenced area, ideally, for me, around an orchard or similar area, that’s so large the birds do not kill the growth inside and reduce everything bare. It is very prohibitive because of the space needed and initial fencing costs. Otherwise, I really like it.

    I think the method described of “stationary rotational grazing” is generally the best way to get the desired benefits of live, green ground, bugs, weeds/seeds etc. with as little work as possible, and when you have minimal space to work with, as well as reduced labor, time and money input.

    I'm sure you noticed that that was also a basic overview of some different ways to keep a flock. As I hope you can see, stationary rotational grazing is really simple and may outperform all the others. It works great, and you won’t regret trying it once you plunge in.

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  1. AlderCreekFarms
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    I went with some tractors, but also hate moving them.

    Rotational grazing as you are calling it is a great idea. Wish I had more doors and fences... the cost of gates is adding up big time! I considered doing the same thing but only two sided.

    Thanks for sharing.
  3. BReeder!
    "Great idea, but not practical for most backyards"
    3/5, 3 out of 5, reviewed Jul 30, 2018
    This is very similar to grazing cattle in different enclosed pastures. Ranchers have been using rotation for many years. Applying it to chickens makes sense. The portable run seems just as labor intensive as the tractors; however, I like the idea of segmented runs. It would be difficult for me to do this though because it requires a lot of space. We live in 1/3 acre in a suburban community and our hens are kept in a U-shaped run behind and along the sides of our greenhouse. While the run over 40' in total length and 5ft wide, I think it would be difficult and cost intensive to divide the run in segments and control the chickens access to each segment. Also, enough segments are needed to allow time for the "pasture" to recover after grazing. I'd say at least 5 segments are needed - 1 active grazing area and 4 recovering pastures with a weekly rotation of the chickens. This is because I know my 5 hens (soon to be 7) are able to devour all plant matter in their run in about 1 week and it takes about 4 weeks for plants to reestablish themselves. For my case, that would mean five 5'x8' runs. I feel like 5 hens (let alone additional the two chicks we are growing out right now) need more space than 5'x8' even if they do get fresh ground every week.


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  1. SailorNoMore
    Thank you! Your article has given me many things to consider....
  2. Sunshine Flock
    I'm really liking the hexagon coop and circular yard idea. If you have a rooster flock or need a separate area for youngsters or a sick bay, this arrangement would save building materials.

    You could create a large hexagon coop with divided walls and private yards. The walls could be moveable to create larger sections if needed. I think this could be especially useful in a cold climate.

    Thanks for sharing.
      Kzdnae and Sunny-Side Up like this.
  3. RezChamp
    Yo, 3riverschick.
    Smart, you too. I really like the panel/section idea, works good eh.
    I did prettywell the same thing except I used 1&1/2foot(the long edge) triangular pieces of plywood in all 4 corners of each panel and I used 2X2's instead of 2X4's. I also used 6ftH 1&1/2inch mesh 14 gauge chain link. Most of the panel lengths are 10ft, a few are 6ft and 4 are 4ft. My gates were made the same way but 4ftX4ft.
    I lifted the gates 2ft to accommodate they amount of snow we get.(I usually end up shovelling away the snow anyhow tho).

    Next time though I'll use treated lumber for the bottom as well as paint with oil based barn paint before and after putting the fencing on. They are starting to decay after 16 yrs.
    Yes, durable, easily maintained, reparable, aesthetically pleasing since it is in my front yard attached to the garage.
    Or at the least more aesthetically pleasing than cheap chicken wire & ratty little fence posts like my backyard chicken fence. I live in the country and my backyard is 250 feet from my house, literally another total yard in itself, actually carved out of the bush.
    Never had a tree fall on mine but I had a 2 yr old bear run smack into it once. Bounced him off there like a trampoline.
  4. 3riverschick
    We make all our yards for dogs and poultry by assembling panels we make in the driveway. Use 2x4 frames with welded wire or chicken wire stapled to them with fence staples. Or very long air compressor staples. Then we stand them up and carriage bold them together, using 4x4's for the corners to eliminate panel flexing. We also put cross corner 2x4 wood braces inside all 4 corners of each panel to eliminate panel flexing. The original dog yard panels were put up 18 years ago with 2x4 inch welded wire and fence staples and no diagonal braces inside the panels. Still going strong. When a neighbor's 60 ft. pine tree fell diagonally across the yard, all was needed was to stand the fence back up again and re-brace the one top corner section. Plus replace a gate which was smashed flat. The panels to which the gate was affixed were just fine. Plus, since everything set "on" the ground and not "in" it, we didn't need any building permits since everything was considered a "temperary structure".
      Kzdnae likes this.
  5. 3riverschick
    This is really interesting! We bred collies for years and now just have 2 pensioners left. I have a 32 by 24 ft. run in the back we are not using because the dogs would rather be with us in the house. I have been trying to figure out how to best reconfigure it for the chickens. We have 3 gates across long side of the yard. I originally had 4 quan. 8'x24' runs there. I am thinking I can save money by only building the one coop instead of 4. Situating it in the center of the yard and dividing the yard into 4 square pens, each basically 12 x 18. minus the 36 sq. ft. taken up by the intrusion of the coop into each area = 4 yards of 180 sq. ft each. That's 18 birds per yard. The 12x12 coop can hold 36 at 4 sq. ft. each. My budget only allows for about 30 adult fowl in my program. This works well. I can use my 2 existing smaller coops ( 4x6 and 3x4)for growing out the chicks. Hum..I like this.
    So to accomplish this I only need to put in 3 quan. 6 ft. tall divider panels. (2 quan at 12 ft. long and 2 quan. at 6 ft. long.). with a gate in each of the 12 ft. panels. Then a 12 x 12 shed with a pop hole in each of the 4 corners.
  6. ChookRanger
    The Chicken Hexagon is a cool idea.
  7. CollegeChicken
    I really like the idea but I just really dont find that hexagonal round design to be aesthetically pleasing at all. I would never put that in my yard or property unless it was professionally designed and decorated
  8. CandaceNoel
    Thank you for the article, amazing, love the idea.
  9. Tatianna
    That is fabulous! I agree with all of your ideas and research. Wish I was handy enough to make this happen. I have always wondered if electric fences would work or if they were to much voltage. Does anyone know what voltage is best?
  10. TeaChick
    I agree that "stationary rotational grazing" is the best. I wish I had the fencing to be able to do that. I especially like that it mimics free ranging, but keeps the birds more secure. =)
  11. fowlsessed
    Ingenious, MarcoPollo! I've thought about something similar, but small-scale and permanent for my breeding pens. Part of my ongoing attempt to get grass-fee din pens.
  12. fowlsessed
    Thanks everyone for the positive comments. Caroyln, that is totally awesome! I have an idea to experiment with growing grass in pens, similar to yours. I'll have to write an article on it when I get it down pat. I do have a few questions if you see this: how many birds do you have in there? And how big is the grass-run? Can they get to it whenever they want to, all day long?

  13. DianaMallory
    I don't like keeping my girls cooped and runned up but, I enjoy having my girls so I have to keep them pinned up, to many predators in my neighborhood! I really like your idea of the rotating run. I am going to have to do some thinking about it because I have limited space. Thank you for sharing!
  14. lovepeeps
    I am so doing the stationary rotation. Will let you know how it goes.
  15. HugHess
    Thanks for the best practice tips. Ideal piece of info.
  16. Carolyn252
    Great article. I have a bit of a variation. The ChickArena is a "room" or "pen" 9 feet by 15 feet covered entirely on all four sides and the ceiling with heavy gauge welded wire that is buried ten inches down and then goes out horizontally underground for about two feet. The dirt floor is covered in 4 to 8 inches of soft wood shavings. In the center of the ChickArena stands a kid's plastic playhouse converted to a coop with the addition of a roosting board inside and a nest box hanging out the back. The people-sized door to the ChickArena opens to the hens' grass-covered run which is bounded on three sides by deer netting hanging from a clothes line rope that I strung up from several trees in my backyard. The netting stays tight to the ground simply by positioning long lengths of heavy rebar on the bottom of the netting. To keep the grass from being destroyed by the hens scratching and digging, I covered the ground with long lengths of plastic green construction fencing. The fencing is soft and flat and so doesn't hurt their feet, has large enough holes to let the grass grow just fine, and yet allows individual grass blades to be plucked and eaten. I hose it down every night for two minutes and that dissolves all chicken droppings. Half of the run is heavily planted with shrubs and trees (no grass) and the chickens can scratch and dig to their hearts' content there. You can see some of the setup there in my avatar next to this posted comment. I particularly like this setup because the chickens are free to leave the playhouse and roam around in the ChickArena whenever they want. I don't have to be there, so I can sleep as late as I want. Once a week, I roll up the green fencing and remove it so that the run's grass can be mowed along with the rest of the backyard's grass. (I remove the rebar and clothespin the deer netting up high on the clothesline so that the mower can get into the run.) When the yard's been mowed, I put the rebar, netting, and fencing back in place; takes about 15 minutes.
  17. MarcoPollo
    Great info and something that people should consider if they haven't yet built a coop/run. I initially had a run for the chickens and they soon scratched out every last green bit in it reducing it to a muddy mess. I was able to use deer netting to block off one half of the run so that it could grow grass back. This has worked out wonderfully so that while one side is growing back, the chickens can tear up the other side. It would be great to have like 4 or 6 different little runs to swap out every few weeks but that is just not possible for me. I love having the ability to half the run but the dirt level still has sunk considerably over the past year. I will have some dirt delivered soon so that the run can be made level again.
  18. CountrySunshine
    I have stationary coops with a large fenced area for them to roam. Oftentimes, I'll open the gate and let them free-range in the pasture. I hate to see my birds cooped up!
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