Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Poultry Basics: Outdoor Safety

Chickens were created to be outdoor birds and they need time to scratch in the dirt, find bugs, take dirt baths, and warm themselves in the sun. But, they are also domesticated and need to be protected from wild predators and sometimes even the family pets. How are you going to keep them safe while allowing them time to be outdoors? Your choice will depend on:

1. Your environment - whether it's urban, rural, surrounded by wildlife, etc.
2. Your philosophy - how important free-ranging is for you compared to keeping them in a run.
3. Your finances - how much money you are willing to invest in predator protection.
4. Your tenacity and ingenuity - how much time and effort as well as creative ideas can you bring to the table.

Options For The Outdoors

• Free-Ranging. Allowing poultry to free-range all over the place is a popular option, but it could mean a shorter life if a predator decides to have chicken for lunch! You'll need to know your area and the wild animals so that you can provide protection while they are out and about. And honestly, there just aren't a lot of viable options for free-ranging safely because the birds could wander just about anywhere! If you have a trusted dog, you could rely on your canine friend, but even the best dogs have suddenly turned on a chicken after months or years and for no apparent reason.

Photo Credit: markhsal
I admit, I've used the dog option, but I never was completely at ease despite my golden retriever's loyalty and protective spirit. Because she is a bird dog and not a herd dog, I constantly was checking in on the "girls" and counting to make sure everyone was still there. And I looked pretty funny running around and calling for a chicken that had left the group (use your imagination!)

A tall fence that covers a large area could offer some protection, but that would depend upon the type of fence. And if you have hawks in the area... well, this just won't do the job. You can try keeping some items in the area that they can run under, such as bushes or a picnic table, but they would have to have some kind of warning or sense that the hawk was about to attack. 

Keep in mind that besides worrying about predators, if you're using your own large backyard to allow your birds to free-range, you're going to have droppings everywhere, including your patio furniture! They'll think they're on vacation at a spa, bathing in your pot plants and eating a bite or two while they're getting all cozy on the porch! 

•Tractors. This is the option for those who want to pasture their chickens, allowing them fresh grass and bugs daily, but with extra security for peace of mind. A chicken tractor is basically a large cage with or without wheels and no bottom. It usually includes a cover for shade, a way to collect eggs or access feed, and if they are layers, a roost or two. Some people leave their hens in the tractor overnight if they have built in shelter, but others put their hens in the coop come twilight. 

Photo Credit: negro gato

The benefit of a tractor is that you can move it to a new area every single day where fresh grass awaits, allowing the birds to fertilize the space, but preventing them from wearing the area out completely. Everyone is usually happy with this arrangement, but you need plenty of pasture. And depending on how many birds you have and the size of your tractor, you may need help moving it around each day.

Photo Credit: Egan Snow

This option is especially suited for meat hens and new chicks of all kinds. But don't stop there if they are layers. A good, secure chicken coop is a must if you plan to keep birds long term!

• Exercise Yard. This is my current option. Sort of a modified free-ranging situation. I have created a smaller fenced yard around the chicken coop which gives the birds plenty of room, but they are limited in how far they can go. They have access all day long to the hen house for laying and safety. 

I haven't done this part yet, but wire can be run from the top of the hen house to each post of your fence to make it difficult for hawks to swoop down on a chicken. A friend has found it to be very successful, however, his exercise yard was rather large, so he put some tall polls (about 12 feet high) in various places where it was too far to run wire all the way to the coop (see diagram below).

Another option is to place your exercise yard within a larger fenced area so your dog can run all the way around the chickens to protect them without actually being in their yard.

• Runs. With chicken wire covering the top and sides, this differs from a tractor in that it's not moveable and is almost always attached directly to the chicken coop itself. It's usually more spacious as well. The advantage is that your hens can get outside anytime they want, including early in the morning before you really want to crawl out of that warm bed! I still have a small run attached to my coop despite the exercise yard just so they can get outside before I do! 

Photo Credit: kusine

You can see that these are typically taller as well. Tall enough to walk inside. This is a huge deal when you're no longer 30-something years old and bending down and crawling inside to clean is ridiculously impossible! Seriously, you need to think long term here.

Photo Credit: Woodenart

If you are concerned that an animal could dig it's way under, consider running an electrified wire around the outside base or dig down several inches and sink the chicken wire down in the ground. Another option would to use a spray like Repells-All around the perimeter every 2 weeks (I use this around my garden fence and my roses, too - works great!). 

I hope this information will help you plan ahead so that your poultry is safe and your mind at ease. I've been very grateful for my husband's excellent building skills and perfectionism many a night when the coyotes were howling right in our back yard!


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