There are many reasons that I chose to start free ranging my chickens. I have run into some challenges along the way, but overall my experience with free range chickens is a good one. Here are a few tips in getting started!
I ALWAYS start my chicks in a safe (indoor – house, barn, garage etc.) brooder where they are offered a balanced 18% chick starter, clean water, fresh shavings, artificial heat and a safe haven from all the critters that would love to eat them. They remain in the brooder for about 6 weeks or until they are fully feathered. Weather permitting, I then move them outside to a coop where they can adjust to the elements but are still safe as they grow to full size. At this point they are able to see my other birds but cannot interact with them. This practice also allows me to keep hens from eating chick feed and chicks from eating layer feed! At 16 weeks I will switch them over to a layer diet and monitor them until I feel they are sizable enough to defend themselves against my other hens and smart enough to get away from predators.
Typically these young birds will continue to go back to the coop to roost and I will close them up every night. During this time my older hens will “shun” the new flock and in my experience for a period of time I will have two totally separate flocks. Over time, the younger birds will integrate more with my existing flock and after a while will begin to roost in the barn with the others. At that time I will close off the coop and clean it up for the next season of growing chicks. Once they are integrated with the flock all of my birds free range 24-7 and roost in my barn where I have stalls for my goats when I need to lock them up and where my livestock guardian dogs can roam underneath them to keep predators away at night. My livestock dogs are KEY to the reduced loss from night dwelling predators. If this is not a reasonable option for you I may consider still locking them in a coop at night.
Now that you know a little bit about my set up, lets discuss what I LOVE and what I DO NOT LOVE about free ranging my birds.
- They eat less feed – For the most part my birds will come down from roosting in the early morning and eat a little feed I leave out for them. They will spend the remainder of the day roaming the property eating all sorts of things from grass to bugs and small critters. They come back in the evening hours and take a few more bites and head up to their posts for the night. However, since I want my birds to produce at optimal capacity I can rest easy I supplement their diet by using Nutrena’s Egg Producer layer feed which is formulated perfectly to balance the diet of free ranging birds.
- Less need for Grit – When chickens can roam around and pick up sand, small rocks and pebbles they will not need grit that you would purchase at a retail store and offer in a coop setting. Grit and or “natural” rocks and pebbles aid the chicken in breaking down ingredients that they consume during the day. It is how they manage to start breaking down food without teeth!
- Insect control – Chickens and other fowl are wonderful at keeping bugs under control. They will eat most any type of bug. Anytime I am in the yard working, my ladies always flock to me knowing I will turn over a rock or a stump and they will have a buffet of all types of crawly critters. I even see them roaming the pastures scratching through horse and goat manure – YUCK, I know – but this is actually good for me and the other animals because they are eating fly larvae! I spend my life battling flies with livestock and chickens are great at taking care of them at the source while ducks seem to be excellent at catching flies right out of the air!
- Control of other pests – In case it is still a mystery, chickens are the closest living relative to the T-rex. If you have ever spent much time watching your birds you may have noticed that they truly love “the hunt.” They are always carefully watching for their next meal while they scratch around and forage. I have witnessed my birds chase down and corner mice and small snakes. They are almost as good as my barn cats!!! Not to say that they keep the mouse population 100% at bay since typically mice are out at night and chickens are mostly blind in the dark, but for the mouse who makes a mistake and comes out in the day light, they are fair game and a welcome challenge for your birds. Given the opportunity, chickens will keep all kinds of unwanted pests away from your farm.
- More active and over all healthier birds – Since I started free ranging I have never had an overweight chicken. Even my bigger breeds like my Brahmas tend to stay quite fit because they get plenty of exercise roaming around the farm all day. They stay healthier because they are not living in close quarters and are at less risk of catching illnesses they may be exposed to in a coop setting. If I have a bird get sick its typically one bird and most of the time I can catch it and quarantine that individual to treat her as opposed to having to treat the whole flock. Considering that most medications on the market today have a withdraw period where eggs must be tossed. Treating a lone individual is much more convenient than having to treat my entire flock and buy eggs from the store.
- Less space required in coop – When chickens are living in a coop 24-7 you must have a minimum of 4 square feet per bird of living space in the coop and even more so in a run. Some town and city ordinances will dictate how much space your birds need in a coop. However, if they are roaming free all day and their only coop activities are laying eggs, eating feed and sleeping, you can typically get away with a little less space in the coop itself. Most birds prefer 1-2 feet of roosting space but in my experience they tend to clump together and unless you have really big chickens, 2 feet is quite a bit of space on a roosting bar.
- Shade – If your birds are able to free range they will find shaded areas, bushes and cool dirt to lounge in during hot summer days. If they are in a coop full time make sure that the run area and coop have some shade to get out of the sun.
- Predators – Chickens are fair game for A LOT of different kinds of predators. At night they are easy targets for raccoons, opossum, weasels, fox, coyotes, bears and MANY more night dwelling critters depending on your geography. In my experience raccoons have been the biggest culprit at night. I went three years without ever having a problem but once they found my flock I was devastated over a period of two weeks despite my efforts to catch the little buggers. My Great Pyrenees were the only thing that stopped them from coming but unfortunately this was after I lost over half my flock VERY quickly. They are also fair game for many daytime predators including hawks, eagles, sometimes fox (during pupping season) and most of all domestic pets. If your neighbors have dogs that roam free, be extremely careful with loose chickens. Even the friendliest dog can be triggered into prey drive by a running chicken.
- Egg hunting – When I first started free ranging I felt like I was on an Easter Egg hunt every day! This got quite frustrating for a while. It seemed like once I learned their “go to” laying spots they would change it up on me. I once found over two dozen eggs nestled in some weeds under a tree in my pasture. Eventually I figured out how to outsmart them. I keep multiple highly desirable laying spots in my barn and always keep a wooden or plastic egg in the nest. Since chickens have a natural instinct to want to clutch up eggs before they start sitting on a nest this method works for me MOST of the time. I am not saying that once in a while I do not have a rogue chicken start laying somewhere funky (like in my goat’s water trough) but usually this is a rare occurrence. I can remedy it most times by “sacrificing” a few eggs and leaving them in the nest to trigger those clutching instincts again. Just make sure you mark those eggs with a sharpie so you do not accidentally eat them later as I assure you they will not be fresh.
- Eating unwanted plants (gardens, flowers, herbs, etc.) – If you or your neighbor have a garden and your chickens find it they will definitely capitalize on a free meal. They will also eat some flower pedals and herbs if you are not careful. Giving your birds produce from the house entices them to seek out this kind of treat and will create an even higher drive to get into a garden. If you want to free range and have a garden – chicken proof it – as soon as possible
- Making a mess and scratching in landscaped areas – Chickens LOVE to scratch up holes and dust in them. If you have a perfectly landscaped yard then your chickens are going to upset you if they are given freedom. Keep this in mind when making your decision.
- Manure –
- Stepping in it – Your chickens will poop where ever they please. Keep this in mind when making your choices. The more space you have for them to roam the less messy your yard will be. However, even with my 5 acre farm I still step in chicken poo fairly regularly.
- Ability to collect, compost and use manure and bedding as fertilizer. If your birds are in the coop with bedding you can easily clean that out, compost it and use it like liquid gold on your garden and yard. If your birds are free ranging you will miss out on that opportunity because their manure will already be spread all over your yard and maybe not where you want it!!
- Noisy when needing to be in coop – Before I got my livestock guard dogs, I would typically lock up my chickens when I went away for a weekend or if I had something going on where I felt like they may not be safe. Once they are used to free ranging, they HATE being locked up and they will definitely put up a fuss and make sure you know about their displeasure. If noise is an issue with your neighbors – they will not appreciate a newly locked up chicken.
- Eating harmful stuff – When free ranging, chickens can pick up and eat things that may not be desirable. Keep in mind that if they are free to roam take up any kind of pest poison (mouse, slug, ant… etc.). Even though it may not harm your bird, you do not want those poisons in your eggs! Same goes for chemicals you put on your yard. If you are throwing down weed killer or fertilizer on your yard keep that in mind as your birds forage around and potentially eat that grass it is not going to lead to the healthiest eggs for your family.
I have attempted to raise chickens in coops, totally free ranged and free ranged during the day while locking them up in a coop at night. I have had success with overall production in every scenario but have to manage them differently in each situation. It is my belief that there are pros and cons to each choice and you have to make decisions based on what is best for you, best for your birds and which management style is most realistic for your farm or hobby yard.