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Getting Enough to Eat on Free Range??

Discussion in 'Feeding & Watering Your Flock' started by TallJ, Oct 19, 2013.

  1. TallJ

    TallJ In the Brooder

    Mar 19, 2013
    So, we have our first flock of 13 chickens (and 5 guineas), currently 18 weeks old. As far as I know no one has started laying yet. A few weeks ago we opened the pen door and said "Have at it Ladies!". My hopes are that they will free range and eat our bugs and greens, and not require too much in the way of feed. (Though, silly me, I wasn't counting on the poop everywhere!)

    We are in a pretty rural area on 5.5 ac, with lots of open grassy area and some woods. Around us are farms and other houses with similar sized lots, some woods, and farm fields. We are pretty far off a quiet road.

    I give the girls some kitchen and garden scraps. Usually fruits and veggies, but the occasional rice or stale bread as well. I haven't been doing much in the garden lately and they have full access. I used wheat straw as mulch and they have been pecking and scratching in there a lot. They also have been eating watermelons, pumpkins, and tons of tomatoes left in the garden. I usually fill their feeder about 1/3 full at some point in the day (7lb. feeder) and make sure they have fresh water. Since they seem to love it, and my little boys love passing it out, we also toss out some oats when we go out. (Probably a cup or two a day total, not rolled oats.)

    They forage in the garden, wander around the lawn, and in to the woods for hours on end. Always pecking and scratching. They can also be found under bushes or evergreen trees seeming to be chilling out or napping for fair portions of the day.

    I want to encourage them to forage, but I also don't want them to be underfed. They usually come running whenever we go out but I am not sure if it is because they are hungry or hoping for oats or another treat! My question for anyone else who free ranges is: How can I tell if they are getting enough?????

  2. Veer67

    Veer67 Songster

    Try feeling their crops when the go to sleep. If it is hard and bumpy they should be full, if the crop is small squishy and feels like water they are probably not eating enough. I always give my chickens a bowl of water and their pellets so that if they are hungry they can always come back to eat. Your chickens sound lucky and they should be healthy and full from the foods that you give them. :)
    Last edited: Oct 19, 2013
  3. TallJ

    TallJ In the Brooder

    Mar 19, 2013
    I am giving them some bagged feed, but want to encourage them to forage. IDK about feeling the crop when the go to sleep, mine always seem to wake at any disturbance in the coop. Probably because they were in the garage too long and woke up to the door opener a few times!!
  4. lgelwell

    lgelwell In the Brooder

    Apr 7, 2012
    Ankeny, IA
    My girls have access to the yard at all times and in the nicer weather I only fill the feeder about once a week because they don't eat as much. They come running when we go out back, but I am sure it's because they always want scraps. I have noticed that now that the weather is getting colder, I'm filling the feeder every two or three days, and in the winter it's daily.

    Not sure if it's only my girls, but if their food is empty or they are hungry, they have a completely different squawk. Loud and annoying, kind of sound like a dinosaur.

    I wouldn't worry too much, they are hardy ladies... They will get enough to eat as long as food is available, and they will always prefer foraging over feed. I do notice that my girls LOVE crumbles, and do not forage as much if there are crumbles available. Since I switched to pellets there is a lot less waste.
  5. Ridgerunner

    Ridgerunner Free Ranging

    Feb 2, 2009
    Southeast Louisiana
    TallJ, it sounds like your chickens are getting plenty of quality forge. There is a huge difference in what yours get and what someone in suburbia where the only available forage is a manicured lawn of closely mowed grass. If a manicured lawn is the best you can do you can’t do any better. I’m not criticizing those that do. We all can only do the best we can do with what we have. Many of us don’t have a choice but to offer supplemental food.

    What you are describing isn’t that different than how small farmers have raised chickens for thousands of years. Al kinds of grasses and weeds, grass and weed seeds, dead leaves and other decaying vegetable matter to scratch in, all kinds of creepy crawlies to chase and catch, and occasionally toss them some kitchen or garden wastes. Winters are likely to be different because the quality of forage will drop, but in the good weather months supplemental feed is usually not offered at all.

    Chickens managed like this are not likely to be fat rotund chickens that can barely waddle around. They will be more trim and fit. They probably won’t lay a double extra huge egg every day, but if your feed costs are esentially zero during most of the good weather season, how efficient can you get if they lay a decent number of regular sized eggs? Of course in winter you are likely to need to supplement their feed.

    How can you tell if they are getting enough food? If they are healthy and active, laying eggs and acting OK, they are doing OK. They don’t have to be obese to be healthy. They are not going to starve themselves if decent forage is available. If you want absolute insurance, offer them food and let them eat as they will.

    Good luck!
  6. donrae

    donrae Hopelessly Addicted Premium Member

    Jun 18, 2010
    Southern Oregon
    How can you tell if they're getting enough food? Watch them, they'll tell you.

    Are they active, alert and have glossy feathers? How about egg production? You didn't mention that, so I don't know if they're laying or not. That's the kicker for most folks. If egg production falls off, they might not be getting enough to eat. Then again, if they're free ranging, they're also just as likely to be hiding eggs somewhere!

    If you have commercial feed available, they're probably okay. You can't go by behavior at feeding or treat time---they're like kids who may have full bellies but someone says "ice cream" and they're suddenly starving!

    Hungry or underfed birds are just going to look poor. Feathers will be flat/dull, break easily. Birds will be listless and more susceptible to diseases and/or parasites. So, if your birds are healthy, active and look good, you're good to go. Just keep in mind winter means more feed needed, and egg production also means they need a little more feed. I agree with ridgerunner, sounds like you have a very nice set up for free-ranging, just keep an eye on those predators.
  7. TallJ

    TallJ In the Brooder

    Mar 19, 2013
    None of the girls have started to lay yet. They just turned 18 weeks old today. I noticed a couple are starting to have very red combs, so I am hoping soon! In fact, when I clean out the coop this week I plan on unblocking the nest boxes and putting some straw in there. We are all hoping for that first egg soon!
    I think they look healthy. They are active, with sedentary periods as well. I've never kept or been around chickens before, but I think they look nice. Thanks for all your input! I must have 10 chicken books, but all seem to be geared to the small backyard suburban/urban needs.

    [​IMG]Out front.
    [​IMG]In the flowerbeds. (Now under all the bushes are tons of chicken and guinea sized holes.)
    [​IMG]Along the edge of the overgrowth and woods.

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