Free Range Poultry, the Inside Scoop

free range chickensA hen lounges in the grass soaking in the sun, on her side with her wing partially open. The rooster pecks, watches, pecks, watches, then circles the flock, always on alert. A pullet scoots through a cluster of hens after a grasshopper, scolded by one of the older ones. Just a snapshot of the flock dynamics from a few minutes watching chickens in a large run or while free ranging.
If you enjoy this view like I do, free ranging or pasturing chickens is a pleasant way to raise your flock. The added food the hens or broilers pick up while foraging can help save on your overall costs, once fencing and predator prevention has been paid for.
When considering nutrition for free range or any poultry, first consider your overall goals. Are you raising for meat or eggs? Are you working to maximize egg production, size and eggshell quality? Do you have a flock for eggs and perhaps meat for your family and enjoy watching the flock more than you care about the number of eggs you collect? Are you rotating your flock maximize the nutrition from the pasture? What are your winters like and do you expect egg production in the cold seasons? Your answers determine your nutrition program for your flock.
Pastured or free range chickens pick up as much nutrition as the pasture has to offer, until they are full that day. If you have ever built a new run, delighted at the lush green grass and plants as you let your chickens out the first few days, only to be horrified at the decimation they caused in a short time, you understand how completely chickens will take advantage of the food sources in an area.
Here’s where the old adage, you are what you eat, comes in. Chickens will get the nutritional value of what they are foraging on. So, if they are free ranging on a fairly well-manicured lawn, the variety of species of plants and insects is quite limited. If they are being rotated weekly within an electric netting fence in a large field that’s mowed twice per year, housed out of a chicken tractor or hoop house, the variety will be much wider.
charlie barred rockNo matter where you raise your poultry, their nutritional needs are pretty much the same. They’re all individuals, just like us, so one hen may need more calcium, for example, than another to keep the same eggshell quality as another hen. Whenever we take away feeding consistency, we change what we know the poultry are receiving as far as nutrition. So, you can change how much nutrition they are getting, but their needs are the same. Whenever these needs for calories, vitamins, minerals and amino acids are not met, a bird will have a deficiency which can cause health issues. These health issues can range from minor to severe; from dull colored feathers and poor feather regrowth after molt or hen pecking, to decreased immune system that leads to susceptibility to respiratory infections.
So, does this mean you cannot raise your poultry out in nature with a varied diet? Absolutely not! Just keep in mind that the commercial feed and supplements that you’re feeding are that much more important because your birds are consuming a much smaller amount of them. For example, a chicken’s diet in a coop and small run is 90% layer feed, like Nutrena® NatureWise® Layer Pellets, and 10% a combination of scratch, calcium chips, unlucky insects that wander in and vegetable scraps. Since 90% of the hen’s diet is balanced for egg production, feather quality and overall health, the hen is healthy and produces large, thick-shelled eggs.
If we take the same hen, open the coop door and let her free range from 7am-7pm, the percentage of the layer feed she eats will dramatically decrease. Let’s say now 80% of her diet is free ranging, and 20% is layer pellets. Now, keep in mind, depending on where the flock is going, she can eat some yummy and nutritious things like insects, worms, frogs, all sorts of plants, flowers, vegetables, even mice. None of this is bad for her, chickens are omnivores and meant to eat all these things. The result we may see is that since the hen is not eating very much layer pellet, she may be deficient in vitamins, minerals or amino acids if she is not getting those from her environment.
Think about it like your diet. If you are eating three balanced meals a day, you’re most likely getting everything your body needs. If you are on the run and your meals are unbalanced and inconsistent, you may need to add a multivitamin, protein shake, meal bar or other supplement to prevent a deficiency.
So, give your free range hens a concentrated diet in addition to their free ranging and you will ensure that they get everything that they need in the smaller amount of feed they eat. For example, Nutrena® Country Feeds® Egg Producer is a concentrated formula that is high in energy, amino acids, vitamins and minerals that hens need to stay healthy and lay beautiful eggs for your family or customers. This type of feed is also helpful if you’re mixing in whole grains, fermented feed, compost or large amounts of vegetable scraps from your kitchen. It’s like giving hens all the amino acids, vitamins and minerals they need in a small amount like a meal/energy bar that we humans would eat.
Use nutrition as preventative medicine to keep your hens healthy and laying. And keep enjoying the sight of your flock and their antics outside!

The truth about chickens and bugs

These chickens are searching for earthworms and centipedesThere is a common belief that free ranging chickens will rid a yard of pesky insects, snails, slugs and ticks. Many think that a flock of chickens converts pests into eggs, meat, and fertilizer. It is important to remember that chickens are opportunistic omnivores who spend hours combing the yard for edible tidbits.They scratch through leaves, tall grass, and garden mulch looking for bugs.  Sometimes they’ll even snatch a fly from the air.  Chickens aren’t picky and don’t care whether a newly found morsel is a pest or beneficial earthworm.  Insects, worms, seeds, grass, spiders, ticks, and a host of other morsels quickly become lunch.  

Turn a few hens into a growing garden and they’ll dine on Japanese beetles, squash bugs, and many other invertebrates. Unfortunately, they will also devour tasty lettuce, chard, spinach and other greens.  Chickens love to peck tomatoes just beginning to ripen and immature squash, and they can damage other garden crops. 

The trick is knowing when and how to allow chickens access to the garden so they eat the pests and ignore the crop. The simplest way is to let them forage in mid fall after all crops are done for the year. Many pests overwinter as larvae or eggs, and chickens will methodically scratch through remnants of the garden, devouring pests as they go and leaving fertilizer in their wake. This certainly can reduce pest numbers in next year’s garden.  

Chickens can also be allowed to forage into growing crops that they tend to not eat or when crops are at a stage of maturity when their fruits or leaves won’t be damaged. For example, chickens rarely bother tomato plants but they love to peck on their nearly ripe reddish fruit. So it’s probably safe to let the birds forage in the tomato patch before ripening fruit is present.   

Because chickens don’t distinguish between garden pests and beneficial invertebrates they will  dine on beneficial worms and pollinating insects as well as pests, although they probably don’t significantly reduce populations of these gardeners’ friends.

Chickens will eat nearly any invertebrate they can catch, but most of the bugs that bite people, chickens, and other animals are stealthy, fast, or very small, giving chickens less of an opportunity to reduce their numbers than slow moving plant pests. They’ll devour the maggots of pesky flies if they can find them but they have a hard time catching adult biting flies other than an occasional one they snap from the air. Mosquitoes are mostly active when the light is low and chickens are nearly comatose on their roost, so they have a hard time reducing those populations.  Hens love to eat ticks, and guineas enjoy them even more. They may reduce the population of larger tick species but likely won’t get all of them. 

You should never assume that free ranging chickens render a yard free of disease carrying pests.  Wear insect repellent when outside, even in the yard, and conduct a personal tick check before taking a shower.

Letting a flock of chickens forage in a back yard reduces their food bill, as the birds eat a diversity of protein rich insects. When carefully managed they will eat garden pests but may not be as effective in devouring the tiny animals that bite humans and other animals.