Should I start free-ranging?

Discussion in 'Chicken Behaviors and Egglaying' started by buckabucka, Mar 19, 2011.

  1. buckabucka

    buckabucka Overrun With Chickens

    Jan 13, 2010
    Fairfield, Maine
    My Coop
    My flock will be a year old in May and we've always kept them in a very secure run. They have quite a bit of room: coop is 12 x 14, and run 12 x 24, for 16 hens and one rooster. This month (March) we noticed much of the flock was losing feathers at the base of their back and discovered our leghorn was picking feathers. Soon, we had a couple of hens with tiny bald spots. We tried pinless peepers on the leghorn, and another hen ripped them off of her.

    This morning, I noticed one of the hens with a bald spot had a tiny red spot. She is very low on the pecking order and another hen (who isn't normally a feather-picker) was chasing after her. I went in to get the blu-kote, and by then several hens were after her in a frenzied blood-lust. The blu-kote helped, although I had to apply it three times today. She still got pecked, but just occasionally and without real damage.

    This evening, I saw several hens pulling feathers from each other. The picking behavior seems to be spreading like wildfire. I tried increasing protein and giving lots of sunflower seed, but it's only been a week or so since I started this. They also have a flock block, and we tried a cabbage, but it only lasted a couple of hours.

    In looking for a solution, I came across a long thread which concluded that free-ranging would likely end this behavior. I'd love to free range. We do have tons of hawks in the summer, and there is a neighbor with a dog that sometimes is loose, - not all the time, it is very unpredictable, but he has circled the run, showing interest.

    I am so discouraged by the hens ganging up on this one chicken. She has a severe cross-beak and lays a beautiful blue egg. I'm starting to think I would rather lose some hens to a predator than watch them cannibalize.

    Should I let them free-range tomorrow? I don't think they will go very far, as there are snow barriers around. My big hesitation (other than predators): I'm afraid once they free-range, they will never tolerate being confined to a run, plus, we'll have to fence our large garden once the snow goes. Do you think free-ranging will stop this obsessive picking?

    I appreciate any advice!
  2. Jferlisi

    Jferlisi i dont eat chicken!!!!

    Nov 2, 2010
    Menifee CA
    Honestly i dont think it will. Im having problems with my sub cockerel with force mating with my hens and hes been cutting up there back. They fight him from doing it but sometimes hes to fast. They free range and we have 5 acres and since they are a flock animal they stay with everyone even tho the one who picks on them is in the group. It might minimize it but i dont think it will bring a stop to them picking on the lower statues hens.

    Best of luck, john.
  3. Qi Chicken

    Qi Chicken Chillin' With My Peeps

    Jul 3, 2009
    I think it will help a lot. But maybe not 100%. Do you have a rooster? If so I wouldn't worry about the hawks as much as the dog. I would stay home the first couple times to make sure the roo gets the hang of it. I might also talk with your neighbor BEFORE the damage is done. Telling him what you plan to do. It would take 2 minutes to wipe out your flock.

    We have TONS of hawks etc. and have not had any problem with the roo on guard. But our neigbors dog almost killed them all, luckily we were home. We are still dealing with injuries stemming from the attack and it was last fall.
  4. buckabucka

    buckabucka Overrun With Chickens

    Jan 13, 2010
    Fairfield, Maine
    My Coop
    Thanks for the replies! I realize that free-ranging will not stop ALL of the pecking, but I'm hoping it will stop them from killing each other.

    Sorry to hear about your dog attack, Qi chicken.

    This morning, the welsummer was in attack-mode again, going after my cross-beak EE with the bald spot. I had put a little more blu-kote on her, as most of the hens find it distasteful, but the welsummer would not let up. I saw her gobble down 3 blu-koted feathers in about 10 seconds, and she wasn't letting up even as I pushed her away. She is in prison now, - in a cage in the coop, with her own food and water.

    I decided to try letting the others out of the run. They are loving scratching around out there, even though there is very little grass at this point. Even the lowly cross-beak is out there with them, and no one is harassing her. Unfortunately, the rooster will NOT step outside the run. Maybe he feels a need to guard the coop? Some of the girls are in there laying, along with the caged bird. If we make this a routine, I'd like the rooster to get out there with them.

    I had to cover the perennial sweet peas which were just emerging with a pair of snowshoes. We think we'll get an electric fence this spring, which will keep the chickens confined to one large area (and out of our garden) and keep the dog out. We could add a couple of hawk shelters too.

    Meanwhile, does anyone know how long I should leave the Welsummer in a cage? Will it only take a couple of days, or a full week? My goal is to bring her down a notch and hopefully have her forget about feather picking.
  5. awalters0815

    awalters0815 Chillin' With My Peeps

    Mar 31, 2010
    Plainfield, IN
    free ranging is always the best policy and chickens can adapt to confinement after being free ranged. It may not solve all your problems, but it will help and you will have a healthier flock.
  6. 7L Farm

    7L Farm Chillin' With My Peeps

    Jul 22, 2010
    Anderson, Texas
    I free range my chickens everyday & they still peck their feathers. Your right once they start free ranging you might as well just do it forever . Feather pecking is a hard habit to break. I have tried every gimmick out there with no results. I totally gave up on trying to break the habit. I just let them do it. I do watch to make sure their not bleeding though. Good luck!!!
  7. schellie69

    schellie69 Chillin' With My Peeps

    Oct 8, 2009
    I had this problem until I got my rooster that seemed to stop the worst of it. They seemed to pick on one hen. I lost that hen this last winter to my son's puppy. So far no pecking feathers I do let them free range a few hours most days. You could also place food in hangers to give them something to do. I would just keep your eye out taking the top hen out and them putting her back in a few days should put her lower in the pecking order. Good luck.
  8. buckabucka

    buckabucka Overrun With Chickens

    Jan 13, 2010
    Fairfield, Maine
    My Coop
    I admit the free-ranging made me a little nervous today, but at least I saw no picking while they were busy digging around. This is slight progress. Of course, there were other hazards, - I watched them gobble up bits of insulation and caulking, and one got a mouse! I took it away, since there is a possibility it was a de-con mouse, although it looked very fresh.

    My other concern was getting them back to the coop. I know they return at dusk, but we are going out before sundown. I brought out their treat bowl and everyone came running and followed me right into the run!

    Tomorrow I will be at work all day, so I plan to keep them in the run, with the worst offender still in her cage. I thought I would give them a couple hours to free-range after work, and try releasing my prisoner bird at the same time to see how she acts.

    I can deal with a little feather picking, but this had turned into a festival of drawing blood from the lowest hen. I'm hoping some time outdoors will provide a distraction.

    Thank you for all of your ideas and comments!

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