Dividing the Flock
Updated: Mar 24
WHY WE HOUSE CHICKENS IN SEPARATE COOPS
As our homestead use of chickens for pest management, tilling power, and egg laying increased, we found ourselves wanting to expand the flock. (Why do we have chickens? Because they're Earning Their Keep.) The original coop had the space to house 8 to 10 chickens comfortably (depending upon their personalities), but was far from large enough for the new chickens we were adding. We came up with an unusual solution to our housing problem--a story for another post--but the key to the new housing arrangement was that the two flocks would be housed in separate coops.
Why not use one big coop?
While there would be some benefit to simply expanding one coop--creating a larger, walk-in structure for all of the hens--we opted to build a separate coop large enough to house 8 to 10 more chickens. We have found that there are several benefits to dividing the flock in this way:
Each flock has its own pecking order.
This means that those hens who are at the bottom of the social ladder have fewer dominant hens to pick on them. Dominant behaviors tend to come out in the coop, so it is important for the low-ranking members to have space to get out of the way. By housing just 8-10 hens in each structure, it's easier to determine if dominant hens are becoming a problem and who the "runts" are. Then we can determine what steps need to be taken to settle their differences.
Each flock has its own rooster.
Although not every homestead could have more than one rooster, it has worked well for us. There are several reasons for this, but one of the primary ones is that they each go into their own coop at night and have their own separate flocks of hens. This allows each rooster to keep the peace in his coop, as well as to have authority without being in immediate proximity to the other rooster.
The roosters and their flocks tend to stick together during the day as they range and forage. They also sound the alarm for their girls and defend them against danger. When the flocks go their separate ways while roaming throughout the day, this ensures that there will be a guardian rooster with each group.
Each flock keeps its space warm.
On this mountain homestead, winter nights sometimes drop to single digits. We don't heat any of our animal housing--the electricity and infrastructure required for outdoor heating doesn't fit with our vision for resilience. This means that we have to take other steps to make sure all the critters stay warm enough.
One way to ensure that the chickens stay warm is by giving them a smaller space to heat; we also stock the coops a bit more tightly than the standard recommended rate. Because our chickens range during the day, they don't have to spend much time together in the coop on hot summer nights. During the winter, when extra warmth is needed, they benefit from the body heat of the other members of their flock.
Each flock can be isolated from disease.
Although we have dealt with very little disease among the homestead's poultry, it is good to have a strategy in case a problem occurs. By separating the chickens into individual flocks, they are less likely to share diseases. If a health issue arises, having two groups makes it easier to identify whether the problem is environmental for the whole group (e.g., from the area where they are ranging), or specific to the bedding and air of that individual coop.
Each flock can be monitored easily.
By dividing the flock into separate groups, it is easy to monitor the health and behavior of each segment. This includes counting to check for missing hens, evaluating which group is producing better, and determining which chickens have the best social behaviors.
Housing chickens in separate coops doesn't increase the workload in any significant way. The coops can be cleaned out on the same day by simply pushing the wheelbarrow from one coop to the next, scraping out the old straw, and replacing it with new. Limiting the number of chickens in each coop helps to control the amount of litter that is generated and keeps the ammonia levels down in wintertime.
Although there are many right ways to keep chickens, on our homestead we have found that dividing the flock is the way to go. Keeping them in separate coops has a number of advantages and keeps them happy, healthy, and resilient chickens.