Wednesday, March 14, 2012

How Much Space Do Laying Hens Need?

I live in Chesapeake, Virginia. I want to keep three or four laying hens in my residential back yard for reasons I outlined in Longing for Urban Chickens.  Chesapeake used to allow chickens only on property zoned for agriculture with an exception for a flock of up to four hens that could be kept as "household pets" in certain residential zones, but only on properties of three acres or more.

This law was unnecessary and elitist. What this meant was that in residential areas only the wealthy could own a local source of fresh, healthy eggs. Those wealthy enough to own large lots could enjoy the benefits of chickens in their gardens. But the average hard-working Joe, who probably needs the nutritional and other advantages of keeping chickens much more than his richer neighbors, was shut out by the "Powers That Be."On November 20, 2012, the Chesapeake City Council voted to allow up to six hens on single-family residential lots with certain restrictions. There had been a one-year sunset clause on the legislation, but our Facebook group, "4 Chesapeake Hens," successfully worked to keep chickens legal.

The March/April, 2012, issue of Urban Farm magazine outlines the minimum space requirements for keeping chickens. And--surprise!--three acres is major overkill for a microflock of three or four hens. Author Kelly Wood has been keeping chickens, bees, and other critters on her 1/2 acres farm in Oregon for more than eight years. According to her article, laying hens require, per bird, a minimum of:
  • 1.5 square feet inside of a coop
  • .75 (that is, 3/4') of perch space inside same coop
  • 1.5 square feet of space in a nest box in the coop
  • 8 square feet in an outdoor run
And that's it! Even multiplying this requirement of less than 12 square feet per bird by three or four hens, there was obviously no reason to require three acres to keep hens other than to deny the benefits of chicken-keeping to most working-class families in Chesapeake. And, in case you are curious, other types of chickens, such as bantams and broilers, require even less space than laying hens, so the requirements were not in place with the protection of any other type of chicken in mind.

Chicken Health for Dummies recommends a 1/2 square foot of space (inside) for chicks up to four weeks old, 1 square foot for chicks from 4-8 weeks old, and 2 square feet for chicks 8-12 weeks old. Meat chickens kept in mobile pens that are moved daily should have 1.5 square feet of space. Full-grown bantams need 2 square feet in the hen house and 6 in the run. Layers need 3 square feet in the hen house and 8 square feet in the run. Large-breed chickens need 4 square feet inside plus 10 square feet in the run. Making sure the birds have enough room helps to prevent health and behavioral problems.

A reader questioned whether laying hens need perches. Everything I've read says they are much happier when they have perches. They stay cleaner, too. Perches should be 2-3 feet up off the ground so the chickens can fly up to them. Heavier breeds may need lower perches to keep from injuring their legs or feet getting on and off them. If the birds don't have room to fly, or if the perches are higher, provide a ladder so the hens can get up there. And perches should be all of an even height so the hens don't fight over who gets the highest one. The higher perches are more desirable, and the hens can squabble over them intensely as part of their efforts to sort out their pecking order (pun intended).

Hens share nest boxes, by the way. One box for every three to four hens should suffice.

**Update on 5/10/12: A recent article on chicken gardens suggests 250 square feet per hen for free-range birds. If you plan to free range them, plan on more space that in the urban farming article. But please note we STILL do not need anywhere near three acres to keep a few hens!

**Update for November 26, 2013: Chesapeake's City Council voted to make the "hen ordinance" permanent. HOA rules still apply if you have a homeowners' association, and ducks, keets, and other domestic fowl are only legal in areas zoned for agriculture.

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