A Comparison of Chicken Shelters

There are three main models for outdoor poultry production. Here are the pros and cons of each, particularly when raising your birds for grass-fed meat.

| January 2017

There is a continuously growing interest in the consumer market for grass-fed, pasture-raised, antibiotic-free meat, whether it be chicken, beef, rabbit, or even venison. Rebecca Thistlethwaite and Jim Dunlop are here with The New Livestock Farmer (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2015) to discuss how farmers can most effectively tap into this daunting venture. They speak from experience about regulations and logistics, about the requirements of raising various animals, plus processing the meat and selling it. This detailed guide spans the market and will prove useful for everyone: consumer, backyard hobbyist, and full-time farmer.

You can purchase this book from the Capper's Farmer store: The New Livestock Farmer.

Management Systems

There are three common models for outdoor poultry production that are widely used on pastured poultry farms. While these models fall into distinct categories, there is often a lot of variation and overlap within them. There is no production rulebook, and we encourage you to adapt a model to make it work better on your farm or for your lifestyle. In no particular order these systems are: portable bottomless shelter with no free range access (aka chicken tractor); semi-portable day range shelter; and a stationary shelter with free range access. All three production models have their pros and cons, which we will discuss to enable you to better understand which method will work best on your farm.

Portable Bottomless Shelter

The portable shelter that is used in this model is often referred to as a chicken tractor or a field pen. A chicken tractor is a small, lightweight, and bottomless poultry shelter that will usually house between fifty and one hundred broilers that don’t leave the shelter. Chicken tractors are moved once or twice a day using human, ATV, or truck power, in order to provide fresh forage and clean ground for the birds. Chicken tractors can be operated with or without electric fencing. Surrounding the shelters with electric netting adds another layer of protection in areas with high predation. Some farmers use electric fencing to keep a guard dog close to the pens, but the fencing doesn’t have to be in the form of netting and can be whatever configuration will confine the dog.

Chicks are most often brooded for the first 2 to 4 weeks in a more secure shelter that is easy to service. The birds are then crated and delivered to the field pens where they spend the rest of their short lives. The young birds can be stocked at higher densities at first and then dispersed to more shelters as they grow larger in order to reduce the density.


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