Successful 100% forage diet experiment (long post)

AccidentalFarm

Crowing
13 Years
Mar 29, 2007
1,310
683
314
Texas
Every so often someone posts a question asking if chickens can survive solely on free-range/forage. The overwhelming response is generally a resounding "no", followed by a laundry list of reasons why it shouldn't be attempted (from not enough forage to increased exposure to predation, etc), which is probably true in most situations.

I am always interested in the threads talking about this because it just seems to me that 100% free-ranging is a species-appropriate life for a chicken, and in my mind, is the gold standard that I should strive for. Adding to that, I geek out on nutrition topics (humans AND animals), so the idea of truly unadulterated meat and eggs makes me swoon.

I just can't believe that this practice is nothing more than a relic of days gone by, only existing in stories of how our grandparents did it. I've been toying with the idea of trying it out for years. I don't feed my goats or my steer, so...why am I feeding the chickens?

I decided to go for it.

So, back somewhere around May I gathered up 48 eggs from my flock and dusted off the Janoel. I had never attempted a dry hatch/incubation, so I decided to try it out. 38 of the 48 hatched right on time with a 3 day spread from first pip to last out of the shell.

I fed the chicks fermented organic, soy-free, non-gmo layer mash direct from the mill while they were in the brooder phase. (Yes, layer mash. 17% to be exact.) I did not vaccinate them, add anything to the water, or supplement with 'treats'). Not a single chick had pasty butt, by the way. (That's because of the fermented feed).

I moved the chicks to an outdoor, open-air brooder when the first adult feathers started showing up. Yes, this is earlier than 'general wisdom' says to do so. I kept them on the fermented feed and started pulling up large clumps of grass and weeds and random vegetation from the creek bank, (roots and dirt and rocks included) to put inside the brooder every day. Once over the initial fear of the new 'thing' in the brooder, the chicks would attack the clumps of vegetation with gusto. I also did not clean out the outdoor brooder. I left all the grass and dirt refuse in it.

The brooder is a two-story prefab coop marketed for 4-6 adult birds, (but isn't big enough for one bird to live it's life in if you ask me). I built a hardware cloth floor for the brooder and put it on wagon tires. It sits outside in the grass and is surrounded by electric poultry netting. My intent was to move the brooder and fence every week or so and keep the youngsters confined within the electric poultry netting.

I started letting the chicks out of the brooder house when they were about 1/2 fuzz and 1/2 feathers. They would stay out all day and return to the coop for the night. What I didn't realize at first is that some were going right through the poultry netting and out into the wild unknown all day long. When I figured this out, all bets were off and I just started opening the gate in the mornings and closing it at night. The experiment was officially beginning whether I liked it or not.

I put some fermented feed in the brooder each evening for about a week, mostly for my own peace of mind that it would get the birds to return home.
It did.
However, the birds all had full crops upon returning to the brooder each evening, so I decided it was time to stop offering food completely.

And that is how it has remained to this day. I never moved the brooder from it's original location and I don't even close it. I do close the electric fence. Gotta say that I'm happy to NOT have to pull up and reset a ridiculous amount of electric poultry fencing every week...

Have there been losses? Yes. I lost 3 birds to sour crop early on, which I believe was due to eating overly fibrous grasses.
Do they still return to the brooder? Most do, others just return to the general area. They don't all choose to roost inside the brooder house. Some roost on top of it. Others roost high up in nearby Oak trees. Two hens and a roo seem to prefer roosting on my lawnmower.

All but one hen and 4 roosters have figured out that flying over the fence every morning is preferable to waiting on me to go open the gate for them. Half the flock hauls butt into the forest and the other half head off to the creek first thing every day, even before daylight (I only know this because I can hear the roosters). I rarely see them at all until dusk rolls around and they start heading back to the brooder house.

An armadillo and a possum have decided to make homes inside the poultry fencing. The possum routinely steals the nest box bedding, which is fine because the hens won't use the nest boxes. A few will lay eggs inside the brooder house. Two lay eggs on my front deck. One lays an egg in the doghouse that my elderly cat stays in during the winter. The rest of them lay eggs in the woods. None of the birds seem to mind the armadillo and possum hanging around.

Are the birds skinny? Malnourished? Bony? No, No, and No. They are all of comparable size to my other flock that free ranges during the day and is given 16% layer pellets every evening after returning to the barn.

Do I give them any food at all? Sure. I throw their eggshells outside after breakfast. If any birds are still around the house they will immediately come and eat them. I also throw out the meat and bones leftover from making chicken bone broth. They eat every scrap of it. I occasionally throw out wilty fruit/vegetables or stale bread ends (homemade). I do this mostly because I'm lazy and it's easier to throw this stuff off the back deck than it is to have it stinking up the kitchen trash can. If the chickens don't eat it, possums and raccoons will. Either is fine with me. Point being that I throw stuff to them on occasion, but in insignificant amounts.

The eggs are smaller than those from my older barn flock, but they are the same in regards to having thick shells and membranes. Unless you hit a rock, the eggs bounce when you throw them on the ground! The yolks are the darkest orange-red I've ever seen. I honestly thought something was very wrong when I saw the first one. The older barn birds eggs also have nice orange yolks, but not anywhere near as dark the others. I don't know why there is a color difference between the flocks.

As for predation, I haven't lost any birds from this flock to predators. I do lose birds from the barn flock to predators on a regular basis...about one a month. I see hawks overhead every day and I often see a fox slinking around near the barn. Raccoons are plentiful. I don't know why this flock has managed to survive predation so far. Is it because they've lived 'wild' basically their whole lives and are more world-wise and able to avoid predators? I truly don't know.

They have a decent amount of forest to roam...land that has never been developed or used for anything. It has decades upon decades of forest floor leaf litter, decaying branches, mosses, mushrooms, and who-knows-what-all out there. I'm certain it's a bug smorgasbord. I no longer fill up waterers either. I stopped that awhile back, too. There's a mile of creek here, so I figure they're good with that.

So, there you go. Chickens can not only survive, they can thrive, on a 100% free-range/forage diet.

I know that not everyone lives in a similar type of place and I wouldn't think of trying this in a suburban yard situation, or even a semi-suburban with a couple of acres situation. I'm not advocating for everyone to stop feeding their chickens. Some of you out there may have the right kind of place for this and a mind to try it, and I'm just here saying it can be done. And at the risk of patting myself on the back too hard...I feel like I may have raised a better/hardier/smarter flock of birds than any of the others I've had before.

Or maybe they've just been lucky. :confused:


IMG_5167.jpg
 

HappyDuckie

🙄🤚 Almighty Queen of Orplingtons 🥶🙏💙
Sep 30, 2020
10,001
86,097
1,206
The Bermuda Triangle
Wow! This was a very interesting read. I love what you have done with these birds! Out of curiosity, and I may have missed it in the post, although I read it all, how much land do they forage on?
As for the darker yolks, I believe I have read that some plants that will turn the yolks dark orange and red.
I would be very keen on trying this myself. My ducks forage for almost all of their food, except for whatever they can eat early in the mornings before they get let out, and before they go to bed at night.
 

Birdie mom

Songster
Mar 27, 2020
998
1,897
236
Carlisle PA (But my chicks are in NC)
That.Is. AWESOME!!! I am going to try that. My chickens consume a ridiculous amount of food per day (like 25lbs), and it has been driving me crazy (try hauling a 50lb container into a coop with 55 birds and try not to step on any). We have 35 acers and lots of forage area. I think my dog could sort out the predator's. Will try this next hatch. Thx for inspiring me!
 

AccidentalFarm

Crowing
13 Years
Mar 29, 2007
1,310
683
314
Texas
Wow! This was a very interesting read. I love what you have done with these birds! Out of curiosity, and I may have missed it in the post, although I read it all, how much land do they forage on?
As for the darker yolks, I believe I have read that some plants that will turn the yolks dark orange and red.
I would be very keen on trying this myself. My ducks forage for almost all of their food, except for whatever they can eat early in the mornings before they get let out, and before they go to bed at night.
Technically, they have 50 acres to roam, about 3/4's of it being wooded.

The yolk color is definitely due to what types of plants they are finding. It's curious to me why my other flock that also forages, lays a lighter yolked egg. The two flocks don't intermingle, but the vegetation is pretty consistent property-wide.

I would really love to have ducks here. For whatever odd reason, I have it in my head that they wouldn't be safe. lol.
 

HappyDuckie

🙄🤚 Almighty Queen of Orplingtons 🥶🙏💙
Sep 30, 2020
10,001
86,097
1,206
The Bermuda Triangle
Technically, they have 50 acres to roam, about 3/4's of it being wooded.

The yolk color is definitely due to what types of plants they are finding. It's curious to me why my other flock that also forages, lays a lighter yolked egg. The two flocks don't intermingle, but the vegetation is pretty consistent property-wide.

I would really love to have ducks here. For whatever odd reason, I have it in my head that they wouldn't be safe. lol.
It very well could be a possibility that whatever plant is causing yolk color, you other chickens haven’t found. Or maybe it’s something to do with feed.
My ducks are much less vulnerable to predators, in my experience, than my chickens have been. I’ve never lost a duck to a predator, and only once was one attacked, which was 100% my fault.
 

AccidentalFarm

Crowing
13 Years
Mar 29, 2007
1,310
683
314
Texas
That.Is. AWESOME!!! I am going to try that. My chickens consume a ridiculous amount of food per day (like 25lbs), and it has been driving me crazy (try hauling a 50lb container into a coop with 55 birds and try not to step on any). We have 35 acers and lots of forage area. I think my dog could sort out the predator's. Will try this next hatch. Thx for inspiring me!
When are you planning the next hatch? I'd love to hear how it goes.
 

aart

Chicken Juggler!
Premium Feather Member
9 Years
Nov 27, 2012
100,657
143,740
1,867
SW Michigan
My Coop
My Coop
So @AccidentalFarm this experiment has been going on for 6 months?
..and gave them no commercial chicken feed after about 6 weeks?

Curious about your climate.
Where in this world are you located?
Climate, and time of year, is almost always a factor.
Please add your general geographical location to your profile.
It's easy to do, and then it's always there!
1608760883265.png
 

Birdie mom

Songster
Mar 27, 2020
998
1,897
236
Carlisle PA (But my chicks are in NC)
When are you planning the next hatch? I'd love to hear how it goes.
I was thinking sometime this spring, but I haven't planned it out yet. I hatched out 30-40 chicks in August (I don't know how many are left now, as they are impossible to count), so probably once the hens start laying and we get rid of some of the roosters.
 

TooCheep

Crowing
Feb 23, 2019
841
5,769
294
Indiana
I'm not surprised that chickens can live basically wild on enough land because that's how they were found before "jungle fowl" were domesticated. However, that was in SE Asia which has much warmer year-round climate than the US. Jungles aren't known for harsh winters. :)

Most of us don't have the conditions to make it successful. Raccoons are a chicken predator, so I'm surprised you haven't seen losses there.

Some questions for you:
  • Where are you located (approximately)?
  • Have they gone through a winter on their own?
  • What percentage of their eggs do you think you are getting? I figure, they lay some where you can find them and some elsewhere.
 

New posts New threads Active threads

Top Bottom