by Tiffany Towne, Nutrena Poultry Expert If you own chickens, you know one of the best rewards of ownership is being able to open the door to the run and let your chickens stretch their legs, spread their wings, and free range. Here some things to keep in mind as you let your flock explore. The Pros (and Cons) of Free Range Free range chickens are wonderful for many reasons: They work up soil – they’re nature’s aerators! On the negative side, they can uproot a newly planted vegetable or flower before you can say “gizzard.” A positive of free range is that as they wander, they also fertilize your yard. A negative is that you can’t go barefoot in all the places you used to, and unless you have great fences, neither can your neighbors. On the plus side, a free ranging flock will eat weeds and pests like spiders, ticks, and mice, and free range birds can help keep the grass down. In short, free range birds work best in an informal yard and garden, where there is some capability to fence or keep them out of new plantings and/or plants of great value and keep them on your property. For truly blissed-out free ranging, allow at least 250 square feet per bird, and at least 4 to 5 chickens to make a cohesive flock that will watch each other’s back while roaming over your yard. Size of Yard Number of Chickens Small urban lot (under 7000 sf incl. house/garage) 3-5 chickens Consider bantams Suburban lot (7,000-13,000 sf) 5-8 chickens Large suburban or rural (over 13,000 sf) 8-12 chickens or more Feeding Free Range Chickens The number one rule of free range chickens is that they DO NOT get all the nutrition they need from ranging. Think of the grass, greens and bugs that they consume as a supplement or treat. It is essential to still provide a complete layer feed for laying birds. This type of feed is balanced for the life stage of laying hens and has the protein, energy, vitamins and minerals needed for production. While consumption will likely go down while allowing birds to free range, you still want to provide feed free choice in an easily accessible feeder(s). In addition, grit and oyster shell should also be provided free choice. Chances are that your birds will find plenty of small pebbles to act as grit as they are foraging outside. However, it is a good idea to still provide this essential supplement. Likewise, oyster shell is something that should always be available so the hens can take what they need. Water is always an essential component to poultry, but it is extremely important in a free range flock to provide multiple water stations throughout the ranging area. That way, birds don’t have to travel far for water. Plant Selection If you want your free range flock to be completely comfortable in their ranging area, take a look at what plants are in it. Having several sheltered areas made up of evergreens or thorny thickets are good for helping your poultry evade airborne predators like hawks and eagles. Plants that your birds will thank you for include juniper, sunflowers (great shade provider and treat in one beautiful package), pumpkins (the seeds can be fed as a natural worm preventative), and butterfly bushes (provide shade, color, and chickens tend to leave them alone), just to name a few. You can also provide them any greens, brassica species, chard, etc. Make no mistake, the grasses, bugs and worms in any yard will also be gladly accepted. As a special treat, feed your chickens the weeds you pull from your garden – just be sure to offer when they are fresh. [Caution: Weeds that have recently been sprayed with herbicides or pesticides may not be suitable for feeding.] Keep in mind that if you have plants that you don’t want your chickens to bother, such as tender garden shoots, fencing individual plants or a young garden may be necessary. Another way to make sure plants are left alone is to plant species that chickens don’t bother. Think of plants that have a strong odor and those that are durable, with thorns/spikes and strong stems. Shrubs are a good alternative. A few of the most common chicken resistant plants can include forsythia, lilac, rose, spirea, and viburnum. Final Notes As in any free range situation, you have to find the method that works best for you and for your birds – whether it’s free range all the time or only periodically, your chickens will enjoy the outdoor buffet your yard has to offer. To find a Nutrena dealer near you, visit www.NutrenaPoultryFeed.com. Also sign up for Flock Minder at www.FlockMinder.com to receive timely tips delivered directly to your inbox.