Successful 100% forage diet experiment (long post)

Florida Bullfrog

Crowing
Premium Feather Member
May 14, 2019
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I Don't know why anyone raises chickens this way.I think he raised them for the fun of it and chose this method because it was the least amount of work.
That’s how everyone raised chickens from the Middle Ages through the 1700s.

The Greeks and Romans also raised coop chickens like we do now. And all the Greco-Roman coop chickens died or reverted to a feral state when Rome’s global supply chain failed.

Some of us think the same thing is going to happen again with the global economy as what happened to Rome and we want chickens that won’t all be dead if and when that happens.
 
Nov 11, 2020
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That’s how everyone raised chickens from the Middle Ages through the 1700s.

The Greeks and Romans also raised coop chickens like we do now. And all the Greco-Roman coop chickens died or reverted to a feral state when Rome’s global supply chain failed.

Some of us think the same thing is going to happen again with the global economy as what happened to Rome and we want chickens that won’t all be dead if and when that happens.
Sorry but few people raise chickens just to be raising them. Most people raise them for their eggs or meat.We got neither one.
 

Stellasmomma

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May 23, 2022
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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:


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Wow this is awesome!! We have 8.5 acres we have left 5 acres natural and there is many many acres of undeveloped land around us, I do put feed out for my chickens but rarely have to refill it they come out in the morning and forage all day they defiantly prefer the food they forage , I have not done anything like you have its amazing! but I have found that the birds do prefer to forage and they have been really healthy. I think I underestimated their ability to take care of themselves thanks for sharing!
 

Florida Bullfrog

Crowing
Premium Feather Member
May 14, 2019
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Sorry but few people raise chickens just to be raising them. Most people raise them for their eggs or meat.We got neither one.
Are we talking about the motivation of raising chickens for fun or or the technique of raising them free range and self-sustaining with little to no human intervention? The latter was the normal techique for how chickens were raised for most of history, originally for the purpose of cockfighting for the first millennia or two then for eggs and meat starting around the 400s BC.
 
Nov 11, 2020
2,967
4,879
386
West Virginia
Are we talking about the motivation of raising chickens for fun or or the technique of raising them free range and self-sustaining with little to no human intervention? The latter was the normal techique for how chickens were raised for most of history, originally for the purpose of cockfighting for the first millennia or two then for eggs and meat starting around the 400s BC.
The key to raising chickens successfully with little intervention is providing them enough food to motivate them to lay in a specific place everyday so you don't have to hunt their eggs. Few people are motivated to raise self sustaining chickens that won't lay in a nest box . You won't get any eggs from a feral flock unless you beat predators to the eggs.
 

Florida Bullfrog

Crowing
Premium Feather Member
May 14, 2019
808
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North Florida
The key to raising chickens successfully with little intervention is providing them enough food to motivate them to lay in a specific place everyday so you don't have to hunt their eggs. Few people are motivated to raise self sustaining chickens that won't lay in a nest box . You won't get any eggs from a feral flock unless you beat predators to the eggs.
Two points. First, my 100% free range flock prefers nest boxes scattered around the farmyard. They instinctively know the nest boxes are safer places to nest. I estimate I get up to 75% of the eggs laid around the farm, with hidden nests becoming the norm only when nest boxes fill up with broody hens. They don’t pick their nesting spots based on food availability near the nest. Instead they base their spots on security.

Second, my poor family lived off of their feral game chickens last century. They had several hundred hens divided between a few brood cocks spread around the woods. They found all the eggs they wanted simply because of the numbers involved. Its not hard to find nests when there are several dozen hens laying.

Think about it like this: Suppose you have 50 hens living feral on your farm. Let’s say they only make 50 eggs a piece a year. That’s still 2,500 eggs. Assume you only find 50% of the eggs laid. That’s still 1,250 eggs a year, plenty for a family to have about 3-4 eggs a day. Realistically you’ll get more eggs than that. My little Cracker hens lay 100-150 eggs per hen a year free range.
 

Florida Bullfrog

Crowing
Premium Feather Member
May 14, 2019
808
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Here’s a random nest box with a broody hen, located about 75 yards from where most of the Crackers roost and equally far from where I throw scratch in the mornings.

7BF1A952-19FE-4D96-9DE4-F288F2FC4DD8.jpeg
 

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