What I've learned from free ranging


The Jam Man
Jan 23, 2013
Pocono Mtns
My Coop
My Coop
Like most of you, I originally built my coop and run like a virtual fortress, a reverse jail so-to-speak...keeping the innocent behind alcatrazian walls of wood and wire, and keeping the public enemies like hawks, foxes and raccoons out. I kept this "recommended" formula for a year and a half until one day I just opened the door and let my chickens have a taste of freedom. That first day, it took quite a while for the first brave heart to step outside the only world they had ever known. One by one they each took their first tentative steps into this new alien world, but never lost site of the door. Each day they ventured a bit further.

Within a week, they were exploring our back yard, front yard, back field and surrounding woods...running back and forth, stumbling upon caches of hidden bugs, worms and other crawly things, sun bathing in the early morning sun, and resting under there favorite cedar tree in the lazy afternoon. The day they found the mulch area must have been like Christmas for them. All I know is they were scratching, pecking and eating like crazy. It also has become their favorite dust bathing area.

Now, I can count on one hand the number of times I have seen a fox or raccoon around here in the 20 years we've lived in PA, although I'm sure they are out there, but the neighborhood hawks took immediate notice. That's where our rooster came in. While the hens are feeding, he is constantly scanning back and forth and overhead. Let a hawk get anywhere near the property and his loud screeching serves as a siren to take cover. If close to the run, they duck in there. The woods are also a great place to duck and hide. However, the open field can be a no-man's (or no-chicken's) land. I built several "safe houses" by taking pallets and building three walls and a roof and placing them strategically in the field. More than once I have seen the whole flock hunkered down in one of them while the hawk was circling and the rooster was sounding the alarm.

True, our back yard has taken a beating, but we have erected a fence around the immediate area where we hang out and are nursing the lawn and gardens back to health (one reason why I waited until October to try this experiment). Yes, I do worry about them getting ambushed by a predator or predators, but they have a lot of hiding places during the day and still report back to the coop at night where we do a roost check and lock them up for the night. Yup, there are some downsides to free ranging, and I'm sure you can think of others, but free ranging has brought many benefits, more I think than keeping them in a run.

- Call me crazy, but they seem much happier.
- Less squabbles, less fighting, less missing feathers
- Best their feather coats have every looked
- More robust and definite weight gain
- Less spending on feed
- Better egg production
- Less bugs around
- More enjoyment from watching them be free and do what chickens do

Like children, you can't hold their wing and protect them forever....eventually you have to let them be real chickens.

Have any of you made the switch from run-only to free ranging? What have been your experiences?

Been thinking about it.....
.......so 18 months confined, and how long have they been free ranging as of now?
Since October. January and February they spent a lot of days in the coop or close to it, but since March they have had full access of the property again.
I so wish we could just open the door for our chickens but....... we have serious bobcat issues in our area. Just had one yesterday on our property.
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Mine have free ranged since I got them in March. I love watching them. It is also a bright spot of my morning when they are standing by my car to greet me when I go to work. They haven't touched my flower beds yet but I'm sure that is coming. They absolutely love the woods by the coop. It is a playground for them all day long.
Thanks, aart.

Janet...Bobcats certainly are a different story...I'd be afraid to go out myself, never mind letting chickens out.

srutan...Oh, they'll find the gardens, believe me.
I think the woods are like a smorgasbord for them. I also like the way they follow me all over the place when I am working on the property.
I agree with everything you have said. Most definitely happier chickens! I have personally watched our rooster stand out in the open and taunt and fight the hawks. Unfortunately, hawks are smart. While the woods, coop, and hide-outs provide some cover, at some point the hawk is just going to go right on in. Just a head's up. I free range March through December. We are on the hawk migration highway, and the risks outweigh those couple months.
I only let mine free range when I'm home, but they do love any chance to get out of the run and explore the yard. Right now their "free range" area is not entirely free. I keep them inside a net fence, but once the garden is a little more established I'm going to try removing it. I can always put the net up AROUND my small garden if need be.

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