While some chickeners let birds roam free around their property, for those of us who live with the threat of predators it's a better idea to give our flock protection when outdoors. A chicken run is a dedicated and protected chicken space outside the coop.
|My chickens in their run|
There are many coop and run combinations available for purchase. I find that many of them are either too small to give chickens adequate space or are very expensive, or are both. With minimal carpentry experience, you can build a chicken run.
Basically, a chicken run is a structure with enclosed walls that is attached to the coop. A door gives the chickens access to the run from the coop. While the run can be made from just about any material I recommend a simple wood and wire structure.
My chicken run is built with pressure-treated 2 x 4 lumber and covered with a combination of chicken wire and welded-wire fencing. It has four walls and a top; it's covered with panels to keep the rain out. The corner pieces are 4 x 4 posts. Because my coop is inside the barn the run is attached to the side of the barn.
I framed the lumber into a big box. My run is eight feet wide and 12 feet long, dimensions that allowed me to buy wood in 8-ft and 12-ft lengths and minimize cutting. The construction is similar to that for a shed or a house. For the walls there's a bottom piece and a top piece and vertical joists in between. The walls of a shed or house need to support heavy plywood and a roof so the joists are often spaced 16 or 18 inches apart. The chicken run walls are wire so the joists can be spaced much wider apart. Mine are at four-feet intervals.
|The basic run structure|
All around the lower walls I attached welded wire fencing material with metal fencing staples. This four-feet tall fencing is sturdy and helps hold the entire structure together.
Of primary concern is to make the run as secure as the coop. That means keeping predators out and chickens in. Identifying potential predators is an important step. I have dogs, cats, coyotes, foxes, and hawks that would all love a chicken dinner. Many people also have to be concerned with raccoons, weasels, possums, snakes, and bears.
Many of these predators will dig under a fence to gain access to the tasty birds. To keep them out, the sides of the run should extend at least 12 inches below the soil surface. My welded-wire fence extends that deep. Digging a trench all around the run during construction helps make burying the fencing easier. Having a single piece of fencing on each side, underground and above, makes a formidable barrier. If snakes or rodents are a concern, you can bury half-inch hardware cloth to help keep any small burrowing animal out.
|Fencing buried in a trench|
To make the structure even stronger and to keep the paws of predators out, the entire run is also wrapped with chicken wire. The double barrier will deter all the predators I face. It extends above the walls and forms a partial roof; on top of it are the 8-ft panels to keep rain off and provide some shade. The covered run also prevents hawks from swooping in for a chicken meal and keeps climbing predators at bay. Plastic or fabric bird netting will keep wild birds out and chickens in.
|Chicken wire on the walls|
The door between the coop and run doubles as a ramp to help them run up and down for entry. It's on a hinge so I can swing it up at night with a cord that I access from inside the barn. This adds an extra barrier to any animal that might make it through the run's walls and want to get inside the coop.
|The retractable door|
To give the run extra strength and stability consider burying the corner supports and anchoring them in concrete. For freestanding, permanent structures this makes the run as strong as it can be. If you plan to move your coop the run needs to be portable too so permanent anchoring should probably be avoided, but be aware it's not as strong.
|Concrete adds strength|
Access to the run from the outside is important because at some point you'll want to get inside to mingle with the chickens, make repairs, or clean it out. I added a wide door to one wall. Two latches make it more secure. My wife convinced me to add the ability to open the door latches from the inside; you don't want to be stuck inside if the door slams shut and you're all alone.
|The gate and my wife|
Providing the chickens water access is a very important consideration. While they may find plants and insects to eat while outside, their primary food source is usually in the coop. But water needs to be available inside and out. Chickens can become dehydrated very quickly on a hot, sunny day.
A pan of water, a chicken waterer, a dripping hose, or any automatic system will work. I installed an automatic chicken nipple system that enables me to fill a bucket every four or five days and gives the chickens continual access to water.
|The bucket is filled from outside the run|
Chickens like to take a dust bath and an outside run with a bare earth floor gives them plenty of opportunity to get dirty. It also gives them a chance to swallow small stones to help their digestion. Very quickly they'll have eaten or scratched up any plants inside the run so you may consider supplementing their outside diet with kitchen scraps and garden cuttings. They're smart birds and have learned very quickly to come running when I approach; I often have a snack of grubs or grasshoppers.
I'd overlooked installing a roosting pole when building the run and I came out one day to see a chicken resting on one of the horizontal wall supports. Adding a long branch to the inside gives them something to rest on.
When constructing the run consider drainage around it. You don't want to discover too late that you built your run in a depression that gets all of the rain or snow run off. Chickens don't do well in mud. If you're forced into a bad spot, consider adding a trench or drain around it to divert excess water.
Chickens also don't like to walk in snow. I plan to add 18-inch tall siding all around the base in the fall. This will help reduce the amount of snow blowing in and still allow them to spend time outside even on cold days. The roof on my run has been very efficient at keeping it dry on rainy days and should help keep snowfall out, but wind is still an issue and protecting the birds from snow drifts is beneficial.
I'm confident that my chicken run will protect them from every conceivable threat. The only thing I'm remotely concerned about is a bear problem, but so far we've seen no signs of bears in this area. They are the only creature strong enough to break through the run. Aside from a concrete and steel structure, bears can get into just about anything else. I'm not worried about it though; I dealt with the issues I have.
After initial construction we decided to board horses so they're a minor issue. While not a chicken predator, horses will rub or lean against the run walls and add unnecessary stress. So I added buried fence posts a few inches from the run walls and will add horizontal boards to make a barrier fence to keep the horses from causing damage.
|The final run with new posts outside|
Every coop and every run is different. Each chicken owner needs to assess individual situations and do what's best for the chickens. Each morning the chickens are awake and ready to get outside. As soon as I open the door to the run they're scurrying out to explore. Their coop is nice but they clearly like the outdoor access. They love their run.