Raising free-range chickens is a hotly debated topic with many things to consider from both sides. Before deciding what to do, evaluating the pros and cons of letting your chickens roam free is best.
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, often 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 seasoned chicken farmers.
We are not experts, and our system is imperfect, but it has worked for us for several years. But as with anything else, it does have its drawbacks.
There are many benefits to having free-range chickens. When chickens roam free, they are exposed to fresh air and sunshine, which benefits most living beings. 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 nutrients in a natural foraging diet transfer to the eggs. Adding Omega-3 and 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 are in free range, your yard will have fewer pesky insects. Chickens love grasshoppers, grubs, beetles, and ticks, to name a few. What better way to control your pests naturally than with free-ranging chickens?
While I wish I could tell you everything is great about letting your chickens free range, it’s not. You must consider some negative points before deciding if free-ranging is for you and your flock.
- Yes, they eat less feed, It’s a fact that 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, strawberries, squash, lettuce, and other garden goodies are a favorite. 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, you must 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, 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 to remain bare for a long time. Even if you don’t let chickens free range, you must 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 has several options for both sides. There is a middle ground that incorporates a little of each side of the debate.
Fenced In Yard
This is the middle ground we chose: the fenced-in chickens. Our backyard is bigger than most. With two acres, we have one acre in the back, 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 huge, 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 try to let them out at least a few 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 sets, they head to the coop without our encouragement, and 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 fool-proof way to free range, it works well for us. Unfortunately, our world is not predator-free, and even with all the barriers and being close by when the flock free-ranges, losing part 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 that needs careful consideration.
Using a Mobile Chicken Tractor
If you decide to let your chicken 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 daily 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 $1,000.00.
You can make your mobile chicken tractors for a fraction of the cost. I have two resources for chicken tractor and coop plans I highly recommend. One of the most versatile sets is called Green House Style Chicken Coop. Easy Coops offers this fantastic tractor plan and a vast selection of other moveable and stationary coops. They also offer a free basic and deluxe plan that includes material cuttings, additional blueprints and illustrations, and more.
These plans are great for the small backyard chicken farmer to the full-production poultry grower. The cool thing about these plans is they are multi-functional for uses other than chickens. In addition to using them for raising meat chickens or egg layers, they work great as a cold frame or a fort for the kids.
Whether you are raising free-range chickens or not, most backyard chicken farmers can enjoy success. Not everyone can free range because of 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 flock.