Free Range ONLY, no feed???


Sep 5, 2015
Quad Cities, Illinois, USA
First, I have raised chickens and currently keep 50 laying hens. I am by no means intending to neglect the basic needs of any animal, nor am I some heartless moron. I'm educated on caring for chickens- but I've only ever learned of one way. Secure Coop & run. I want to know if free ranging without providing feed (treats allowed :) ) is possible.

I want to know if I can purchase chicks this spring, raise them with medicated feed until they're ready to be outdoors, and then move them to a large pen and only provide adequate shelter and water; No Feed.

After 4 months of them no-so-free ranging, collect the birds for meat.

Is it possible and realistic- or is it inhumane and creating malnourishment?

Surely, someone has first hand experience or has witnessed such an operation.
It really depends on how many birds, how big the area they will be ranging on, and what food sources are available in their free range area. I live on an acre. About half of it is grassy lawn, about a quarter of it is wooded, and one side is lined with blackberry shrubs. The flock has access to an overgrown pasture next door with about 10 to 15 different grass/seed plants, and there are several types of wild berries. They have all this to free range, but I always have feed available. For 15 birds, at the peak of summer, they ate about 2 to 3 pounds of feed a day. That's just a few ounces of feed a day per bird, and most of that was consumed first thing in the morning and just before roosting.
You may not be able to eliminate feed completely, but if you have a diverse environment, with lots of different things available (not just grass) you will be able to reduce the amount of feed they go through considerably.

Colored dots to be used to reference locations.
Pink boundary line indicates seasonal flooding/ wet land.
Laying coop is in square barn between garage and long barn.
The area from red to yellow is mowed lawn, that may be left to grow if desired.
The blue area is tall grass.
the green area is a maple tree bordered by tall grass and flooding to the northwest (pink).

I am able to mow up to the green dot if the shade tree is necessary in a mowed area.

Where is an ideal location for pen-kept forage chickens?

Also, the area beyond the yellow dot is heavily wooden- making for easy fencing using the trees as posts.
Try to include as much diversity as possible. Overgrown grass will provide seeds/grains, mowed grass is good for grazing, leaf litter is where all the good bugs are.
I don't think you'll be able to completely eliminate feed, but you've got enough there to drastically reduce their consumption. You might want to plant some bird friendly native berry plants. Lignonberry, Huckleberry, Loganberry, and Boysenberry are all natives of Illinois, make for good forage and cover, and there will be plenty of berries for you to use, as well.
What you are talking about is a model that has been used for thousands of years on small farms. During good weather months the chickens basically feed themselves. During other times, supplemental feed is offered. June is exactly right, the quality of the forage determines how well this will work. Small farms generally had not only a lot of variety in plant growth but different places they could search for creepy crawlies. They often had farm animals too. Chickens could scratch through cow and horse manure and find a lot of nutrients in that, some of it partially digested bits and some maggots or other insects growing in it. I grew up on a farm like that.

Your area looks like it is set up pretty well for that. I’d still suggest you follow June’s example and provide feed for them, but with all that forage they are likely to not eat a lot of it. It is a very efficient way to feed them in the good weather months.

One huge risk for you is predators. People free range chickens in that type of set-up all the time without serious predator issues, others get wiped out. The only way to find out which group you are in is to try it. I do strongly suggest locking them up at night in a predator proof coop, that’s when your risk is highest. A good dog allowed to be outside all the time and trained to not hurt your chickens can be a great asset.

Whether or not you use medicated feed is up to you. I don’t. I always suggest you check the label to confirm what medicine is in medicated feed. It’s almost always Amprolium but there are a few on the market that contain something else. Amprolium is not an antibiotic. Amprolium is a thyamine blocker that limits the reproduction of the bug that causes Coccidiosis. Chickens will develop an immunity to a specific strain of bugs that cause Coccidiosis after two to three weeks of exposure as long as the number of bugs don’t get out of hand. Amprolium does not introduce that bug, but by limiting how much it reproduces helps keep the numbers in hand until they develop immunity. That bug lives in the ground and thrives in wet conditions. I feed dirt from my run to the chicks in the brooder to introduce that bug every few days and keep the brooder very dry so the numbers don’t get out of hand without the Medicated feed. There is nothing wrong with Amprolium medicated feed but unless the bug has been introduced it doesn’t do any good either.
Wow, great information! You're reassuring some of my plans.

I know of 3 coyote living in my treeline, fox and raccoon. I'm certain of at least 3 red-tail hawk, among other predatory birds overhead. Predator protection is crucial where I'm at - the .22 has reduces a lot of the nuisances, but there are always predators. Chicken wire, hardware cloth, and welded wire are all essentials where I'm at.

I would be keeping meat birds for 3-4 months and harvesting shortly after. I will be supplementing with feed, but wanted to know if it was possible to go without.

What breeds would do best for rapid growth on this diet. CornishX are super growers, but they probably aren't so hot with foraging and little feed. I've heard about Red Rangers being the best free meat birds, though they may take significantly longer. Any ideas there also?
Black sexlinks are what I raise. Mine are bred from my flock. I've got an Easter Egger rooster and 5 Barred Rock hens, for my sexlinks. All the chicks grow quickly. The boys are about the same size as their mothers by 10 weeks old, they outgrow their father by 14 weeks, and they are great foragers.
Hatchery sourced ones probably get bigger than mine. Most hatcheries use RIR roosters, which are bigger than my Easter Egger.
You have to be careful ordering sex links from a hatchery for meat. Some hatchery sex links are made by crossing two dual purpose breeds and they are OK. But some are the commercial egg laying sex links and are about the size of a leghorn. Not much meat there. One year I got a bunch or red sex links from Meyer that were made by crossing a Rhode Island Red rooster over Rhode Island White hens. They did fine for meat. Those were just to fill out an order for a few specific other chickens. Figured I might as well get something good to eat.

Normally I also make my own from my flock. It’s a barnyard mix of hatchery dual purpose breeds mostly. I did get designer chickens one time, where someone was working on Ameraucana. I wanted the blue egg gene. They were a little small.

My suggestion is to get one of the specials from a hatchery where they send you an assortment of breeds, whatever they have extra. That way you can try out different dual purpose breeds and see which you prefer. The cost usually isn’t too bad.
Smaller, skinnier chickens would do better in a forage-based arrangement than any larger, meat-type bird. "Game"-type birds would probably be the best bet if your main goal is to reduce or eliminate the need to supplement feed. The more you move toward larger, meatier birds, in general, the harder that's going to be. It's a continuum between wild, red jungle fowl-types, which can feed themselves just fine, and Cornish X on the other end, which can't at all, and there's no "right' or "wrong" place to fall on that continuum, but one has to recognize just how much distance and room there is between them!

The model that Ridgerunner is talking about that "has been used for thousands of years on small farms" didn't involve Cornish X, Freedom Rangers, or even, say, modern Rhode Island Red stock (their older ancestors, arguably). It involved scrappy little self-reliant landraces, more like the Icelandics, or what you see roaming villages and fields in "developing" countries--not hatchery stock or even most modern "heritage" breeds today.

They might look something like this picture of feral chickens:

Or this:

Those types of poultry could work very well in the situation you envision. You don't get big, fat chickens, but you get quality meat with little input. However, for better or more likely worse, that doesn't jibe with most people's idea of a "meat chicken" these days. :)

And btw, I agree with the advice of locking them up at night in solid, predator-proof housing. Chickens aren't active at night, so nothing is lost by doing so, while many predators are. There is ample historical precedent for the value of locking up the free roaming chickens at night. You may still lose the occasional one to hawks etc, but that should take care of the worst of it.

Another thing to not to overlook in selecting free ranging breeds is camoflage! Note the muted colorations of wild jungle fowl--there's a reason nature didn't make them all white! :)

Good luck. It sounds like a cool and potentially rewarding project.

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