Free Range Chickens: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
Letting chickens free range is a hotly debated topic with many things to consider from both sides. Before deciding what to do, it is best to look at the pros and cons of letting your chickens roam free.
Several of our neighbors raise chickens, and most of them do so with coops surrounded by fully enclosed runs. In some cases, they don’t have the 2 acres to homestead with like we do, many times only one half-acre, so keeping free range chickens from straying to the neighbors is much more difficult.
Then there are those backyard chicken farmers like our neighbors to the north of us, who breed show chickens and heirloom breeds to sell. The last thing they want is a bad boy from the wrong side of the tracks, mixing with their girls. On our little urban homestead, we raise our chickens differently than many of the more seasoned chicken farmers around us.
We are not experts by any means and our system is not perfect, but it works for us and has for several years. But as with anything else, it does have its drawbacks.
There are many benefits to having free ranging chickens. When chickens are allowed to roam free, they are exposed to fresh air and sunshine, which is a healthy benefit to most living beings on this planet. But more than that, free ranging allows your chickens to forage for their food which is a natural instinct.
- It’s healthier. No matter how you look at it, chickens able to forage for themselves have a well-rounded, healthier diet, than those fenced in. Free ranging gives chickens a diverse diet of bugs, grubs, worms, grass, and seeds; all things chickens love to eat.
- Nutrient packed eggs. All those bugs and other things your chickens forage are full of nutrients. While others may disagree with me, some of the nutrients found in a natural foraging diet transfer to the eggs. Adding Omega-3 and lots of vitamins A and E, gives us wonderfully delicious eggs with bright orange yolks. Not to mention, most people will tell you, they taste better.
- Less commercial feed. Free ranging chickens still need commercial feed for a well-rounded diet. However, after filling up on lots of greens, bugs, and seeds, your chickens eat less commercial food.
- Natural pest control. If your chickens free range, your yard will have less pesky insects. Chickens love grass hoppers, grubs, beetles, and ticks, to name a few. What better way to control your pests naturally than with free ranging chickens.
[callout title=TIP]If you decide not to free range, you can still offer your flock insects by giving them mealyworms. These can be purchased dried and packaged, or you can easily raise your own.[/callout]
While I wish I could tell you everything is great about letting your chickens free range, it’s not. There are some negative points you must consider before deciding if free ranging is for you and your flock.
- Yes they eat less feed, but… It’s a fact, free ranging chickens eat less feed, however the benefit of less feed comes with a negative side. Along with picking up all of those nutritious bugs and tasty grass, chickens love gardens. Ripe tomatoes and strawberries are a favorite, along with squash, lettuce, and other garden goodies. In addition to eating vegetation, chickens scratch. This can wreak havoc on bulb flowers and new vegetable seedlings. If you plan to let your flock free range at all, you will need to protect any vegetation you don’t want eaten.
- Predator risk. Free ranging chickens are at greater risk from predators than chickens housed in a protected area. Whether you have wild animals like coyotes, large predatory birds, raccoons, and foxes, or neighborhood dogs, your flock is at greater risk when allowed to roam free.
- Love for a dust bath. One of the favorite pastimes of chickens is the dust bath. It may look like playtime, but dust baths are necessary for controlling parasites like mites and lice on your chickens. This causes large dusty holes around your yard, remaining bare for a long time. Even if you don’t let chickens free range, you need to give them a dirt area for dust bathing.
- Poop everywhere. Unlike with chickens contained in a fenced area, free ranging leaves you with chicken poop everywhere. If you like using chicken manure in the compost pile or adding it directly to your garden, free ranging makes this very difficult.
- Egg hunt. The nice thing about having cooped chickens, is egg gathering is much easier. With free ranging chickens, your eggs could be anywhere. When our chickens free range, it is not unusual to see one of us out in the yard, looking under storage buildings and bushes when trying to gather eggs
A Middle Ground to the Debate
The issue of free range chickens versus a caged run is not so black and white and actually has several options for both sides of the issue. There is a middle ground which incorporates a little of each side of the debate.
Fenced In Yard
This is the middle ground we chose: the fenced in chickens. Our back yard is bigger than most. With having two acres, we have one acre in back that is completely fenced in with 6 foot privacy fencing on all sides. This gives our flock lots of room to roam and forage for food. In addition to having a very large, fenced in area, we only part-time our free-ranging.
Even with a fenced in yard, our chickens only free range while we are there to keep an eye on them. Sometimes this may be all day or other times, just a few hours, and not always every day, though we do try to let them out at least a couple of hours. This is because even in our suburban area, we have a lot of predators like coyotes, raccoons, and neighborhood dogs. When our chickens are free ranging we leave the gates to the chicken runs open, allowing them to go inside the run if they feel threatened for any reason.
By nature, chickens are homebodies. As much as they love to forage, they have the instinct to stay close to their protected roosting areas where there is protection and plenty of food and water. When the sun starts to set, they head to the coop without any encouragement from us, then we lock the gates for the night. Occasionally we may have to track a stray down, but that is rare.
While this is not a completely fool-proof way to free range, it does work quite well for us. Unfortunately, our world is not predator free and even with all the man-made barriers and being close by, losing part of or all of a flock is still possible.
Predators can find a way into the most secure areas even when humans are near. The lure of a food source is stronger than the fear of human contact. The choice of free ranging and how to do it is an emotional decision and one that needs careful consideration.
Using a Mobile Chicken Tractor
If you decide letting your chickens free range is not for you, the next best thing is the mobile chicken tractor. A chicken tractor gives the benefits of foraging for their food while being protected in an enclosed environment.
A mobile chicken tractor keeps your flock out of the garden and is moveable to new areas every day to prevent overworking one area, keeping your grass and foliage healthier. Chicken tractors can be purchased ready-made in various shapes and sizes, depending on your needs. The cost will set you back anywhere from $150.00 to some costing close to $1,000.00.
You can make your own mobile chicken tractors for a fraction of the cost. I have two resources for chicken tractor plans I highly recommend. One of the most versatile set of plans for a chicken tractor is put out by John Suscovich, called Stress Free Chicken Tractor Plans. This downloadable e-book not only has the complete plans for his chicken tractor, but also feeder and water information to use in your chicken tractor, materials to use, and lots of other useful information about raising chickens.
These plans are great for the small backyard chicken farmer to the full production poultry grower and houses 1-30 chickens. The cool thing about John’s plans is they are multi-functional for uses other than chickens. In addition to using them for raising meat chickens or egg layers, John says they work great as a cold frame or a fort for the kids. My second recommendation for chicken coop building plans is a downloadable e-book by Bill Keene called Building a Chicken Coop. This download is full of different coop plans as well as a bunch of bonus material about raising chickens.
No matter how you choose to raise your chickens, you don’t need to free range to be a successful backyard chicken farmer. Not everyone can free range because of different factors like space, predators, landscaping, or neighbors. Providing a safe, clean environment and enough fresh water and food is all you need for a happy and healthy backyard chicken farm.