If you are trying to establish a new homestead or farm, you might be wondering how many chickens per acre you can keep.
It is recommended to stick to around 50 chickens per acre, with a maximum of around 100 for free-range, ethically kept birds. In very specific situations, you can keep around 400-500 chickens per acre as long as you rotate them.
However, you can potentially keep more if you’re only rearing broilers or if you implement certain strategies to make sure that the land and chickens remain healthy. You can potentially pasture rear up to around 400 – 500 birds per acre in certain very specific situations, as long as you rotate them to avoid too much manure spoiling the sod and implement a well-managed, integrated yarding system. But in most cases, such high stocking densities are not a good idea.
There are a number of different things to think about when deciding how many chickens you can keep. However, this can be a complex topic. If you search online, you will find a great many very different answers to this question.
In this article, we discuss the issue and talk about why it is best to keep stocking densities lower in order to practice sustainable farming and manage your land in a sustainable way. But we’ll also explain why, in certain cases, you can keep a lot more chickens per acre.
Free Range is Best
It is important to note that in this article, we are making the assumption that you wish to keep your hens’ free-range rather than keeping them cooped or in a battery farming situation. If you are thinking of rearing chickens in an intensive way at high stocking density, indoors or with only very limited outside space – I urge you to please think again.
I rescue chickens that come from factory farms – giving them a healthy and happy retirement. And if you had seen the state of those birds, as I have, you would not think that it was ethical to treat these living creatures in the way they are treated.
In factory farming enterprises, chickens can be confined 24 hours a day with thousands of other birds, all for the sake of feeding the masses and achieving profit. Do not be tempted to go down this route. If you are thinking of keeping more than a hundred or so birds on your land, this can usually only realistically and healthily be maintained long-term if birds are confined indoors most if not all of the time. Take figures like keeping 500-1000 birds per acre as factory farming figures – and avoid replicating such conditions at all costs.
Let chickens be chickens and roam as nature intended. That way, you can achieve a great balance between meeting your own needs and animal welfare.
Land Required For Coop And Growing Feed For Chickens
When thinking about how many chickens your land can sustainably maintain, it is worthwhile remembering that you will not only need space for free-range pasture/foraging your flock.
Chickens need somewhere to roost, of course. Their coop should allow at least 2-3 sq ft (0.19 – 0.28 sq m) of coop space per hen.
As an absolute minimum, chickens need to have 8-10 sq ft (0.74 – 0.93 sq m) per bird in an outdoor run/yard, but of course, ideally and ethically speaking, they should have access to much more space and be able to range more freely for optimal health and well-being.
But if you want to be self-sufficient on your homestead, it is important to note that chickens will not be able to forage all they need to eat – even when they are given sufficient space, so vegetation remains. Pastureland and the food chickens eat when ranging freely will usually only ever be supplemental to their main diet.
If you do not want to buy in grains/feed for your hens, then you will have to consider the acreage required to grow sufficient quantities. Of course, how much grain you can grow on a given area of land can vary considerably. But perhaps you might be able to grow grains for 50 chickens on around ½ an acre (less if they are broilers that you only keep for a shorter period of time).
Of course, you may well just buy in feed. In this case, this will not be a factor in deciding how many chickens you can keep on your land.
What Other Food is Provided Has a Bearing on Survival of Forage Vegetation
The more free-ranging chickens can forage, the less food they will require. But also conversely, the more food they are provided with, the less of a toll that can take on the ground cover in the pasture/foraging area.
When trying to decide how many chickens per acre can comfortably be accommodated on your land, it is important to think about how much of the covering vegetation in an area they are likely to eat.
Some of the damage chickens do to vegetation is through their scratching. But they can also eat through a surprising about of grass or other plants in a surprisingly short period of time. This is something that many people quickly discover when they try to crowd in too many hens into a small run or even overstock a much larger area of land.
The reason that I recommend a lower stocking density than many other sources is that this will maintain the vegetative cover on the land and protect the soil, as well as lessening the feed needed for your flock.
But should you prefer to up the number somewhat and keep (say) 100 hens per acre, then making sure you are providing sufficient feed can help you maintain ground cover over and keep the system sustainable over time.
The Characteristics of the Land and Soil Are Important
How easily the vegetative cover on a piece of land can be maintained obviously depends to a large degree on the climate, microclimate, and soil conditions in your area. In certain areas, vegetation will be more sparse to begin with. While in other areas, it can be so abundant that a higher stocking density is possible, and you can keep more chickens per acre.
It is important to think about the conditions where you live and also how these change throughout the year. In temperate climates, forage will tend to be far more limited over the winter months, for example. In areas with distinct wet and dry seasons, this can also determine how the characteristics of the land change over the course of the year. It is important to bear these things in mind when deciding how many chickens per acre you can keep.
How the Land is Planted is Important
The vegetation currently on the land and/or how you intend to plant it up also has an important bearing on how many chickens per acre it is a good idea to keep. Remember, in order to keep free-range chickens healthy and happy. It is important to aim for as high natural biodiversity as possible.
Stocking density in a run or yard that will be denuded of vegetation quite quickly is one thing – stocking density for a well-managed and vegetated area of land is quite another. It is important to think about not only whether the chickens will be happy and healthy but also about the health of the soil and of the ecosystem as a whole.
One thing to mention is that one of the main things that limit the ideal stocking density of chickens on any piece of land is the quantity of manure that they generate.
You might think that as long as they have enough to eat and are well cared for, you can keep as many chickens on a suitable piece of land as you wish. But it is important to remember that the system will not only become denuded of vegetation if you do so. It will also become over-saturated with nitrogen-rich manure.
This can not only reduce the yield of which the soil is capable. It can also cause runoff and water pollution and even create ‘dead zones’ due to excess nitrogen in the area itself or downstream.
At moderate stocking densities of around 50 hens per acre, the nitrogen-rich manure can be an excellent fertilizer and help the vegetation on the site to grow strong and healthy.
If you aim for a stocking density of around 50 hens per acre, the hens will add (roughly speaking and as a general guideline) 6500 lbs (2948 kg) of manure per acre per year. This equates to 45.5 lbs (21 kg) of nitrogen, 29 lbs (13 kg) of phosphorus, and 94 lbs (43 kg) of potassium. This is really as much as most areas of land can comfortably absorb unless you go to a lot of extra effort.
But again, the character of your particular land is important. How much manure will be desirable depends upon a range of factors, including soil organic matter level, soil organic matter loss rate, and the degree to which it will be desirable to raise soil organic matter levels. This is a complex matter, which is one of the reasons why there is no one correct the exact answer to how many chickens per acre is a good idea.
Chicken Pasture Can Serve Other Functions Too
One other important thing to remember when thinking about how many chickens you can include per acre is how chicken pasture can also be an area of land used for other purposes. For example, chickens can very usefully and successfully be integrated into orchards in silvo-poultry agroforestry systems.
It is beneficial for the welfare of chickens to have trees in the outdoor run. That’s because the ancestors of domestic chickens roost in trees. However, if you plant the trees in the outdoor run, this may cause less vegetation under the trees because the level of light is reduced.
It’s beneficial to establish and maintain a healthy sward under the trees. It helps to protect the soil and provides alternative food sources for the chickens, and enhances biodiversity. Establishing a treed area of land for chickens with a healthy sward or ground cover layer can ensure the health of the chickens and the ecosystem as a whole.
Careful planning of the agroforestry system to optimize chicken pressure across the range is key, with a rotation of flocks to allow swards to establish and recover. How exactly an agroforestry system is arranged, and the plants included in the ground cover layer will play an important role in determining correct stocking density.
In my small forest garden (a small-scale version of an agroforestry system), I rotate up to 10 or so chickens through the system, giving them periodic access to different areas. Scaled up to an acre, a similar system would allow you to keep nearly 100 chickens on an acre while providing them with a balanced diet through their main feed and allowing free-range foraging as diet supplementation. But some loss and replanting of lower layers of planting and ground cover should be assumed. Decreasing stocking density would make it easier to maintain the sward.
Tractor System or Yarding?
Allowing your chickens to move periodically to certain areas of land is often referred to as a ‘tractor system.’ The term is somewhat misleading, however, and does not involve tractors in the sense of heavy farm machinery. Rather, chickens are moved around in a moveable coop and run structure, sometimes referred to as a chicken tractor, or, alternatively, are penned or fenced into different parts of the land during different times.
In my system, I have divided the forest garden area into sections between which the chickens are rotated. Once the chickens have begun to deplete the vegetation in one area, that area is fenced up to recover, and another area is opened up.
If you create a tractor (or moveable containment) system, this can mean that you can stock chickens at a slightly higher density. Since the vegetation is able to recover, sward can be maintained. Problems with excessive manure can also be avoided.
Though it should be noted that in my system, the nighttime manure from the coop is added to my compost pile, and the bedding and manure compost is not used in the area where chickens are kept. Instead, I use it in other parts of my garden. This is one reason why a higher stocking density can be maintained without damaging the soil or the environment. If you do not plan to use nighttime manure elsewhere, then a lower figure of close to 50 chickens per acre would be recommended.
In other systems, runs or yards are used, which become permanently denuded of vegetation.
For example, you might have two yards (or fenced areas). One will house the chickens, while the other is planted up with annual crops. Then, the hens are moved into the second yard and scratch and fertilize that while the first yard is planted.
It is also possible to implement a henyard system, where hens are kept in an area where muddy or dusty areas are covered with a thick layer of mulch (straw or other carbon-rich material). Mulch is added continually to create a deep litter system, and then, once a year, cleared out and spread on a field or garden.
But a yarding system is not truly free-range – and hens will not be as happy or healthy without natural vegetation around them to enjoy.
Broilers Need Less Land Than Layers
When trying to decide how many chickens per acre, it is important to determine why you want to keep chickens in the first place. If you are growing broilers (meat birds), you will not be keeping these on the land for as long – so – logically – you can keep more of them. Layers will be out year-round, so they will need a bit more space. Keep that in mind as you work out the right figure for you.
Thinking Long Term is Important
Remember, in the short term, you can keep lots and lots of chickens per acre. But short-term thinking will only bring problems down the line. The European Union says you can keep 400 hens per acre. But just because regulations say you can, that does not mean that it is right or ethical to do so.
Keep 50-100 birds per acre for the best and healthiest results for your chickens and for the environment.