Deciding to Free Range Your Flock
Often one of the first things a new chicken owner wants to do is let the flock out to free-range. One of the joys of owning chickens is watching "chicken TV" as they interact with each other, you, and their environment. Free-ranging provides a larger and more varied environment for your chickens. Before free-ranging your chickens, however, there are some steps you should take to make sure your flock gains the most benefits from free-ranging, that they remain safe, and that they return to the safety of the coop at night. One of the jobs of responsible animal husbandry (taking care of animals used for food or products), is to provide them with a safe environment. There is no way to ensure 100% safety, but there are ways to make their free-ranging as safe as possible.
First, let’s define free-ranging. It does NOT mean turning your chickens loose outside and letting them fend for themselves. If you look at USDA regulations, you’ll find that in order for poultry producers to label their chickens as free-range (or free-roam) they “must demonstrate to the Agency that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside.” That broad definition allows a lot of leeway in how to manage your free-range chickens. It does not specify the quality of the outside area, the amount of outside area or the duration of time spent outside. If you purchase free-range eggs or chickens, it would be a good idea to find out what that specific producer considers "free-range."
For the purpose of this article, we will discuss backyard flocks - not large poultry producers. We will also define free-ranging as allowing your chickens to be outside of an enclosed pen for all or part of the day. That doesn’t mean there can’t be fences. Chickens can free-range within a larger fenced-in area such as a pasture, a field or even a back yard. Just remember that while fences will help contain your flock, chickens can and do fly over them. And while many fences may help contain chickens, they do little to keep out predators.
In deciding whether or not your chickens can free-range, you should study the benefits and dangers of free-ranging and decide what will work best for your particular flock. There is no “one size fits all” method of free-ranging. Some people decide that the dangers are too great, and so they work to provide their chickens with a large run where they can still get plenty of exercise and fresh air but in a protected environment. Others let their chickens free-range while managing the risks as best they can.
First, what are the benefits of free-ranging?
Benefits of free-ranging
- Reduced feed costs – When chickens free-range, they eat bugs, grasses, seeds, leaves and other treats they find outside, and that means they eat less feed.
- Higher quality eggs and meat – Check out this article from Mother Earth News to find out what a big difference free-ranging makes in the nutritional content of eggs. http://www.motherearthnews.com/eggs.aspx. Free-ranging provides benefits to chickens that are raised for meat as well. According to The Sustainable Table (http://www.sustainabletable.org/issues/pasture/), “free-range chickens have 21% less total fat, 30% less saturated fat and 28% fewer calories than their factory-farmed counterparts." Simply put, eggs and meat from free-ranged chickens are healthier for us.
- Insect control – Chicken love to eat a wide variety of insects. When they free-range, they are able to find and eat more insects. Many people let chickens free-range in their gardens during the winter to help control grubs and other insects that could harm their plants later in the year.
- Fertilizing and aerating the soil – all that scratching, pecking and pooping in the soil does a great job of keeping the dirt loosened, fertilized and aerated.
- More natural – When chickens free-range, they are able to do what nature intended them to do. They can scratch and dig in the dirt to find bugs and leaves and to forage for other things to eat. They can run and exercise their wings by flying short distances. They can snooze in the sun or find a nice place to take a dust bath which is essential in controlling parasites and conditioning their skin.
Now let's look at the dangers of free-ranging.
Dangers of free-ranging
- Predators - The biggest challenge of free-ranging is protecting the flock from predators. While well-constructed fences may keep out some dogs, coyotes and other 4-legged predators, many predators can (and do) climb or dig under, jump over or navigate their way through fences. Flying predators (owls, hawks, etc.) are a common danger for free-ranged chickens. It’s difficult to protect your flock from overhead attacks.
First be aware. Even if you’re inside the house, listen for excessive noise from the chickens outside. Chickens frequently squawk and cluck, but as you become more familiar with your flock, you’ll learn what sounds they make when they’re panicked or feeling threatened. If you hear unusual sounds from your chickens, investigate immediately.
Second, provide cover for your chickens. When free-range chickens are threatened, they can use the cover of a shelter or trees, bushes and other vegetation for protection from predators.
Another solution is to have a livestock guardian dog (LGD). An LGD can be an invaluable asset in protecting your flock. However, an improperly trained LGD can become a predator as well. Don’t get an LGD unless you can provide the necessary training. Training an LGD takes a year or more of consistent time and work with the dog. Many livestock owners swear by them. Before getting an LGD, learn as much as possible to determine whether one would be right for you and your flock and whether or not you can set aside the time daily for training.
Have a rooster with your flock. At first the thought of having a rooster wasn't appealing to me. However, we ended up with one anyway after buying some straight run chicks. When our young and beautiful rooster saw a hawk one day, he sounded the alarm for the hens, All the hens ran to shelter, and the rooster faced the hawk by himself. We heard the commotion and quickly ran outside, but the hawk had already killed the rooster. Our roo died protecting his flock. Most roosters instinctively look out for their hens. The hens stay near him as they free-range, and the rooster keeps an eye out for predators such as hawks, owls, foxes and raccoons - anything he recognizes as dangerous.
Many chicken owners use supervised free-ranging. After my rooster was killed by a hawk, I decided to do this. My chickens have an especially large covered run. So they get some of the benefits of free-ranging inside the run - flying, roosting, scratching and pecking in the dirt. However I also let them out of the run as often as possible. I do so only when I can be outside to supervise. I usually work in the garden, yard or around the chicken coop during that time. That way I can keep an eye on them and watch for possible dangers.
Portable coops or runs can also be used. Portable coops and runs can be utilized to vary the area for free-ranging. Once the chickens recognize the portable coop as "home," they will return to it at dusk each day and they will return to it as shelter from predators. One advantage of a portable coop is that you can move it around the property in order to fertilize and aerate a larger area - and you can keep the chickens from completely stripping one area. It provides a nearby place for the chickens to run for safety.
Finally, no matter what you do to protect your chickens while free-ranging, you will likely lose one occasionally. If you don't feel you can handle a loss, then free-ranging probably isn't for you. It can be distressing to find a partially eaten chicken, to have a chicken just disappear or to find that a few feathers are all that's left of your favorite chicken. However, most free-range flock owners accept that an occasional loss is the trade-off for allowing their chickens to roam freely.
- Weather - Another danger to free-range chickens is the weather. A covered shelter or access to their coop (permanent or portable) is necessary in case of heavy rain, hail or other weather-related threats.
- Chickens may find “unusual” places to lay their eggs - While this isn’t a “danger,” it is an inconvenience you may experience. When chickens free-range for a large part of the day, they will often lay their eggs in a cozy-looking place outside rather than in the nest boxes in the coop. Sometimes you can find caches of 20 or more eggs that have been laid in a hollow in the ground, under a bush, or anywhere else that appeals to the chickens. If you keep the chickens in the coop for the first week or two, they become accustomed to laying in the nest boxes, and they’ll hopefully continue returning to the nest boxes to lay even when they’re free-ranging. You can also provide nest boxes outside for your hens. Despite efforts to encourage them to lay in nest boxes, there’s no sure-fire way to prevent them from laying elsewhere. If you have a sudden decrease in the number of eggs each day, observe your hens as they free-range to see where else they might be laying.
- Landscape damage - If you have a favorite flower bed that you don't want destroyed, devise some way to keep your chickens out of it. Chickens seem to have an uncanny ability to zero in on any area where you don't want them to forage. Their natural instinct to scratch, peck and take dust baths can spell disaster for gardens and mulched areas. At one time I kept a leaf blower handy, and as soon as the chickens were back in the coop, I blew all the mulch back into the shrubbery area. Whether or not this is a concern for you depends on the area where your chickens will free-range.
Getting your flock to return to their coop at night
When I got my first flock of chickens, I was eager to let them free range. However, I was afraid they would wander too far and/or not go back to the coop to roost at night. I worried that if I had to go inside or run some errands, I wouldn't be able to get them back to the coop & pen where they'd be safe until I returned. The solution ended up being fairly simple.
For the first week (at least) keep the chickens in their coop. By forcing them to stay in the coop for a period of time, you are teaching them that the coop is “home” and that it is a safe place for them to be. They also should learn to lay their eggs in the nest boxes in the coop during this confinement period. You might feel that it’s overly strict or “mean” to keep them confined, but it will save you a lot of trouble in the long run. And as long as there is sufficient room for the chickens in the coop, they will be fine. A quick search of “how big should the coop be?” on BYC will locate many discussions to guide you in determining how many chickens your coop can house.
After the week in the coop, wait until about an hour before dusk, and let them out to free-range – leaving the coop door open so they can return when they are ready. Stay outside with them the first few times to keep an eye on them and to make sure none wander too far away. Except for the occasional renegade, the chickens will invariably head for the coop when it begins to get dark. You might have to physically place some birds in the coop initially, but, in my experience, they all eventually learn what to do.
Sometimes I want my chickens to return to the coop during the day. In order to do that, I've trained them using both my words and actions. I have a specific cup that I fill with freeze-dried mealworms. You can use sunflower seeds, cracked corn - any kind of treat. I take the cup, shake it so that there is a noise and call, "Here, chick chick chick!" - and they come running. I drop a few mealworms along the way and continue calling "Chick, chick, chick!" as I walk into the pen - and they follow me. Once they're all in, I give them the rest of the mealworms as a reward, and I close the door. It will take at least a week or two of training, but this method has worked many times for me.
Finally, when you want to begin free-ranging your flock, research the benefits and dangers and then make an informed decision about what you feel will work best for your flock. Except for the basics of responsible animal husbandry, nothing is written in stone. Be open to modifying your free-ranging set-up as needed - and then enjoy the benefits of a free-ranged flock.