Who doesn’t love the idyllic thought of chickens roaming free over a sunny, grassy, hill? In an ideal world, this would be the life of every chicken. When chickens free range they can nibble on a huge variety of greens, get plenty of protein from tasty bugs, dust bathe with friends, and nap in the shade. Real world concerns put free range chickens in danger however. So is free ranging right for your flock?
What is free ranging?
Free ranging means very different things to different people. In the commercial chicken farming industry, “free range” chickens are ones that have freedom to move around & have “access to outdoors”. While infinitely better than chickens confined to small battery cages, this can still mean thousands of birds are crammed into a large, enclosed barn. Often the “access to outdoors” just means there is a pop door that leads to a small concrete pen that is open for only minutes a day. Most of these chickens are too skeptical of new experiences to ever venture out the door, so they live their entire lives inside.
For different backyard chicken keepers, free ranging can also look different. Some chicken owners only allow a supervised free range, only letting their birds out of the run when they are there to watch. Limited free ranging usually means the chickens are let out to roam for an hour or so. Most times this is done in the early evening, to take advantage of chicken’s natural instinct to return to the coop at dusk. Totally free ranged chickens are allowed full access to the entire yard from dawn to dusk.
Choosing how much, if any, free range time their flock gets is an individual decision. Let’s look at the possible disadvantages and advantages to free ranging your chickens.
Disadvantages of free ranging
The most obvious & deadly threat to free range chickens is predators. If your chickens free range, you will eventually lose some to predators. It is unfortunate, but true. Many people consider their chickens pets, not just livestock, so do not want to take the risk of allowing the birds out of the run. The night time poses the biggest threat to chickens with raccoons, opossums, weasels, fox, coyotes, bears and more depending on your location. Chickens should ALWAYS be secured in a coop at night to keep them safe. Even during the daylight hours, your flock is not entirely safe. Birds of prey, like hawks & eagles, would love to swoop in and take a chicken (especially chicks or bantam breeds). Neighborhood domestic animals, like dog or cats, are also a concern during the day.
When your chickens are safely secured in their run, you have complete control over their environment. When they are let loose in the world there are a host of poisons they could encounter in a suburban yard. Pest poisons (for rodents or insects), weed killer or lawn fertilizer could be ingested as the birds forage. Depending on how much they eat, it could kill your bird, or make them very ill. Even worse, traces of the poison could transfer into their eggs, making your family ill.
Do you enjoy a daily Easter egg hunt? If so, this might not be a disadvantage! When chickens free range for much of the day, they could decide to lay their eggs in a number of cozy corners around the yard rather than return to the coop nest boxes.
Chicken poop – everywhere. If your chickens are given unrestricted access to your yard all day long you can expect to find poop everywhere. On your deck. On your lawn chairs. In your garden. On your welcome mat. On your kid’s swingset. On your grill cover. If they can get to it, they will poop on. No one likes stepping in poop while walking in the yard and you don’t want to track that back into your house.
Neighborhood concerns – why would a chicken cross the road? To scratch around your neighbor’s garden. Chickens don’t care about roads or property lines. They could get hit by a car, annoy your neighbors by digging up their plants or pooping on their lawn, or just wander too far from home and get lost (check out my story on Gypsy the Wanderer!)
Advantages of free ranging
Less fighting. When your chickens are confined, they get bored. When they get bored, they tend to pick on each other. When confined there are only so many places the bullied chicken can run & hide to. You will find free range chickens make for a more harmonious flock.
Free range chickens require less feed. While they are out all day browsing on grass, grubs, worms & weeds they are fulfilling a large portion of a healthy, natural diet. While quality feed should always be offered, foraging time will cut down on the amount of feed they will need.
More nutritious eggs. Pasture raised free range chickens have access to an all you can eat buffet of high protein bugs. Chickens are not meant to be vegetarians. Insects & small rodents are part of their natural diet, as are having access to a variety of different plant materials. What they eat directly effects the quality of their eggs. Pasture raised chickens have flavorful eggs with gorgeous, golden yolks with 1/3 less cholesterol, 1/4 less saturated fat, 2/3 more vitamin A, 2 times more omega-3 fatty acids, 3 times more vitamin E and 7 times more beta carotene! Click here to read more about chicken eggs
Natural bug control. All that bug hunting means less grubs to eat your lawn and less ticks to bite your kids. Win win for everyone!
Less mites & lice. One of the most effective ways chickens combat external parasites like mites & lice is by dust bathing. Yes, you can set up a dust bath in the run, but chickens seem to really enjoy picking out their own locations. Free range chickens also have more space to dust bath so it can truly be the social activity it was meant to be. Click here to read more about dust bathing. Click here to read more about mites & lice
All around healthier & happier chickens. Chickens in even a roomy, confined run have about 20 square feet per bird to explore. Free range chickens have an entire yard (even a modest 1/2 acre suburban yard gives them over 20,000 square feet!). All that space to cover gives those little chicken legs a good workout. Chickens that free range are rarely overweight and get plenty of exercise to keep them in great shape. Not only are they healthy, they are happier when allowed to forage. If you don’t believe me, you should hear the protests of my birds on days when I don’t let them out of the run!
Is it worth it?
This is something each chicken keeper will have to decide for themselves. I personally think the benefits of having happy, healthy hens outweighs the disadvantages. I would be terribly sad if one of my chickens were snatched by a predator while free ranging. I would be consoled in the knowledge that while she lived, it was the best life possible. I am coming up on just about 6 years chicken keeping and I have not lost a bird yet, but know it’s only a matter of time. I live in an area where we don’t have large predators like mountain lions or bears, but we certainly have raccoons, opossums, fisher cats, foxes & a healthy population of hawks. My backyard is entirely fenced to help deter (not stop, but at least deter) predators. They are locked securely in their coop at night. There are lots of large bushes & full grown trees they can take cover in during the day. The fence keeps the birds from bothering my neighbors or wandering off. I don’t leave out poisons and don’t fertilize my lawn (the chickens do plenty of that on their own!). I have made my yard as safe as possible, to make free ranging an acceptable risk. My birds go out in the morning as soon as I get up and are out until dusk. They are allowed out year round, although when there is snow on the ground, they tend to stay in the run.
A good compromise
I have been thinking about sectioning off part of my yard exclusively for the chickens & ducks, their own poultry yard. This will allow them the freedom of free ranging but take care of the final issue I have with free ranging – the poop everywhere. A chicken yard can just be sectioned off with chicken wire, it is meant to contain the chickens, not protect them. Unless you can rotate the location of the chicken yard, it should be 600-800 square feet per bird. This will allow the ground cover to grow so they are not foraging on bare dirt. A variety of grass, herbs, weeds & shrubs can be planted in the yard for foraging & taking shelter.