Pros and Cons of Free Ranging Chickens

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.

Pros of Free Ranging Chickens

  1. 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.
  2. 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!
  3. 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!
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.

Cons of Free Ranging Chickens

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

  3. 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
  4. 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.
  5. Manure
    1. 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.
    2. 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!!
  6. 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.
  7. 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.

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!

Free Range Management Tips

Free range chickens still take proper management  In an ideal world they happily roam about as they please, weeding your garden, eating bugs, and leaving just enough eggs for your morning omelet right on your doorstep. In reality, free range chickens take some management. While they do roam, it may be over to your neighbor’s house where they are chased by their dog. A young garden does not hold up well to hungry chickens and most days all they leave on your doorstep is… well, something you don’t want to step in. But free range chickens, when managed correctly, can provide entertainment, eggs in abundance, and a very satisfying addition to your home.  Here are some tips for free range management:

  • Get chickens used to their “home base.” Even though you want your birds to roam, you still need to establish a spot for them to lay their eggs and roost. Keeping them in a coop or other confined area for a few weeks before turning them out to explore is a great idea. After being set free they will instinctively return to this spot to roost at night. Offering scratch or other treats is a good way to lure them back in their coop or confined area if the need arises during the day.
  • Keep track of where they lay. I didn’t know our first group of chickens were laying until I found a clutch of 18 eggs in the dog house! Keeping them confined to the coop for the first week or two of laying and providing comfortable nest boxes (1 for every 3 or 4 hens) will help – as will adding fake eggs to the nests. If you do have a rogue hen who insists on laying elsewhere, keep your ears open. Chickens usually make a racket when laying an egg, so the “egg song” may help lead you to her nest.
  • Watch out for predators. Make sure that your chickens are not going to be harassed by dogs, cats, or other predators. Keep an eye on the sky; hawks and eagles enjoy a chicken dinner just like the rest of us. Make sure your chickens always have access to shelter if they need somewhere to hide, and consider getting a rooster, as one of a rooster’s main instincts is to guard and protect his hens and alert them of any impending danger. Even with supervision during their ranging time, there is always a chance that a predator will attack your flock.
  • Fence off young garden plants or tender flower shoots since they can be a favorite meal for a chicken. Newly dug earth and freshly mulched beds can be a dream come true for a hen looking to take a dust bath.
  • Keep fresh clean water available at all times where your chickens can always access it. This may mean having multiple watering stations set up around the areas where the birds will be ranging as well as in the coop.

With just a few management strategies, you can enjoy your free range chickens (and their eggs) for a long time to come.