How do I start free-ranging my chickens?

SilverLacedFarmChik

Believe in magic 🧙‍♀️
May 19, 2020
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696
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NE South Dakota
Let me start by saying that I know I'm probably over-thinking this. My brain knows that chickens have been domesticated for hundreds of years and having a flock in the yard is not a new thing for people.

All of that being said- I have had chickens since 2020. I've always had them in a coop and a fenced in run. The coop is approx 240 sq ft and the run is 4-5 times that. I started with 16 birds... and then I got an incubator *dun-dun-duuuuunnnn* . So now I have a few more birds.

We live (and have lived for 20 years) on a no-longer-active cattle farm, we haven't had any cattle here for a couple of years. I say this because our yard, plus our in-laws yard, plus the old hay yard, plus the at home pasture where the cattle stayed in the winter, is probably close to 40-50 acres. We are also surrounded by crop land and tree lines on every side.

I never free-ranged my flock, despite the obvious abundance, because I know there at least 2 pairs of hawks and at least one owl that live in our trees. We also have coyotes, fox, mink, raccoons, and skunks. So if I free range, I will lose birds, and I know this. Up until now, I wasn't ok with that so I kept them penned and at least made sure they weren't over crowded and as happy as they could be.

With the rising cost of absolutely everything it's pretty hard for me to keep them from gorging on the incredible abundance of free food right outside of their run. Especially if the only thing that is holding them back is me maybe getting my feelings hurt if I lose one or two...

After all of that (seriously, bless you if you've made it this far), my actual questions are these:
How do I start free ranging? Do I literally just open the door to the run and let them out and assume they will come back?
Will they come back in to the coop to lay eggs? Or will it be an egg hunt every day? Should I only let them out in the afternoon so at least the majority of the eggs will be in the coop?
How far to chickens generally range from their coop? I shouldn't find them a half mile down the road...right?

Ok, now that all of my insecurities are splayed out on the page I feel better, lol. If anyone has any advice, I'm all ears!
 
I live in the wilds of SD on an active cattle ranch. I love to let mine out. I do have a good rooster, and a good rooster does help a lot with day time predators. I know a lot of people don't think so, but not every rooster is a good rooster.

I do this to help:
  • don't let them out on real cloudy, misty days or high wind days - gives too much advantage to the predators.
  • don't let them out every single day on a schedule. Some times I let them out at 7:00, some times at 3:00, and anywhere in between
  • A good rooster does help, he should be the first to see you when you come into the area
  • do have enough space (sounds like you do) where as you can go into total lock down 24/7 when you do get hit. If I get hit, I keep them locked up for several days
  • Do know that !#$@^& predator always takes your favorite
  • The eggs will taste better
  • If you get a sudden egg production loss, they have a hidden nest. Usually spending a morning out there with them, they will show you where it is, but just lock them up again until they are laying in the proper place
  • they will demolish a garden faster than you can say to your mother, "the chicken are out...I have to go" Any landscaping plants can be fair game.

Yes, you just open the gate - at first they will stay close to the coop. The more you let them out, the farther they will roam, up to a point. It is handy to train them to come to scratch in a can or a call. If you feed them, call to them, and when you call them they will come. I find it helpful to put a little scratch right by the gate, and more farther in the coop, but this is only if you need to get them in in the middle of the day for some reason.

Otherwise, they will go in and roost by themselves. Near dark go down and lock them up.

Mrs K
 
Thanks @Earthdale and @Mrs. K ! I do have a couple of Cream Legbar roosters with my flock, both are easygoing, alert, and treat the girls well. We will see how they do when they are out and about.

About half of the flock are 2 years old and the other half is about a year old. I do have some 3 month chicks that I just turned in with them but they are as of yet too scared to come out of the coop. Should I try to separate them off again so they don’t go out with the flock since they are a little more vulnerable?
 
Yep good info here! The most helpful thing is that they will for sure come home to the coop to roost. So just work your way back from that. If you let them out in the afternoon, they'll just get a few hours of freedom. If you let them out first thing in the am, you're likely stuck with them out until roosting time. If I have to get mine back for some reason before they do it on thier onw, I shake a can of scratch, but it only works on the older ones and the young ones are so hard to catch... I wait until mid-morning so that quite a few eggs are already layed and no early morning predators are out. They all do go back to the coop to lay eggs and get water. But the longer they have the free life the more talking amongst themselves and conspiring about finding a more hidden place to lay eggs they'll do.
 
How do I start free ranging? Do I literally just open the door to the run and let them out and assume they will come back?
Yes, they will want to come back when it gets close to bedtime. You need to be out there the first few times to make sure they can make it. I've had some get behind a fence and totally forget about the gate they've been using all day that is only 15 feet away. They are so desperate to get back they keep trying to get through the fence instead of backing off a bit and going to the gate. Most of them make it fine but for the first night or two you may need to herd them to that gate.

Will they come back in to the coop to lay eggs? Or will it be an egg hunt every day? Should I only let them out in the afternoon so at least the majority of the eggs will be in the coop?
The majority should, maybe even all of them. But it is possible one or more could hide a nest out there. That's one of the first things I suspect when I see a drop in egg production and they are not molting.

How far to chickens generally range from their coop? I shouldn't find them a half mile down the road...right?
As others said, the longer they are out the further they are likely to roam. At first they may even be reluctant to leave the run. How far will they eventually roam? That depends on the personality of the chickens and the lay of your land. Vegetation changes like fence rows or crops might keep them out or invite them in. There is no easy set answer to this, too many variables. They will go as far as they go. I'm not used to seeing them go more than a 1/4 mile from the coop, most stay closer than that. Don't expect your flock to stay in one group either. It sounds like you have enough that they will split up into cliques and go where they go. Some will hang around a rooster, some all-hen groups may hang together.
 
I taught mine to come when called so if I need to call them at anytime I call and everyone comes running in a big hurry.
Mine definitely know and love the scratch bucket so hopefully if I shake that it will get them to come to me. They honestly get pretty excited when I come out of the house just in general, they have learned that ‘chonky human lady brings food’ 😉
 

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