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What to feed free-rangers

Discussion in 'Feeding & Watering Your Flock' started by UrbanEnthusiast, May 2, 2016.

  1. UrbanEnthusiast

    UrbanEnthusiast Chillin' With My Peeps

    Jul 12, 2012
    Port Orford, Oregon
    I have a dozen 8-week-old pullets I plan to let free-range over 5 acres most of the day each day as soon as they are full grown and might have a prayer against coyotes and hawks. They are brown Leghorn and EE, so they should be excellent foragers. I have heard that free ranging means you can cut back on feeding them, at least in spring and summer. My question is, what part of their diet is NOT fulfilled by the bugs and plants they can find in abundance all spring and summer? Could I get away with just giving them scratch or seeds or some other supplement during these months? I want them to be healthy and well-fed, of course, but I have a fetish for the whole less-is-more thing when it comes to my homestead. I want to encourage them to eat off the land as much as possible.
  2. QueenMisha

    QueenMisha Queen of the Coop

    No! Please do not cut back on feed, ESPECIALLY when working with Leghorns and EEs, two high production breeds.

    Free ranging supplements a commercial mix. It should not in any way replace it. They should have 24/7, 365 day per year access to a commercial mix AND be allowed to free range. The best free ranger in the WORLD couldn't obtain more than 20% of their diet from free ranging, and the majority will not acquire even that. Even if they could, it would be detrimental to them - I'll explain why in just a moment.

    The most common thing I hear in response to this is "But my grandmother/grandfather/long lost great uncle did this when they were kids! All of their birds did just fine living off the land and foraging from the scrap piles and compost bins!" And yes, 50, 80, 100 years ago, chickens did generally survive off what was available, and maybe supplemented with some seeds or grains by their keepers. But those were the breeds of 50, 80, 100 years ago. The advent of commercial rations perfectly suited to a chicken's nutritional needs was a turning point for almost every chicken breed out there. It has allowed their bodies to be pushed to the limit of what they can produce - in the course of 50 years, we've doubled peak egg production from 150 eggs (a world class layer back then) to 300 being the AVERAGE for a production breed. The domestic chicken is derived from Junglefowl - a group of species which, on average, produce maybe 5-15 eggs per year.

    Almost all breeds you encounter being sold at hatcheries can be expected to produce 200-300 eggs per year on average. Your Leghorns are some of the peak producing fowl, where less than 300 would be a poor layer. Hatcheries like to call breeds they carry such as Leghorns or Plymouth Rocks "heritage" because a breed of that name has existed for a couple centuries. But the actual genetics of the stock sold by such hatcheries is recent - very recent. Unless it comes from an Old Standardbred line, it's a patchwork creation made in the past 50 years or so and is without a doubt what I would call a modern breed.

    Think of a modern chicken's body like a delicate and powerful machine (because it is). It performs at the peak of its capabilities, and it takes very careful upkeep to keep it performing well. The more eggs a hen produces, the more her body has been tinkered with to obtain a better producer, the more delicate the process of keeping her in good condition. And feed is without a doubt the number one factor in keeping a bird healthy.

    Yes, free ranging is good for them. Actually better for them than most any scraps people love to feed their birds, since they're obtaining a perfect mixture of proteins (bugs) and vitamins/fiber (plants) without consuming anything overly fatty, sugary, or otherwise imbalanced and without over-consuming anything either. But it should act only as a supplemental ration and nothing more.

    Regarding scratch - even if there was some way to cut back on feed during the spring and summer months without negatively impacting their health and production, feeding scratch as a replacement would be a really bad idea. Scratch may look like something nutritious, but it's basically chicken candy - I can't think of a substance worse for a chicken's health than scratch. It's fatty and contains little to no actual nutrtional value. And almost everyone overfeeds it; I can't even count the amount of birds I've had brought to me and after handling them have found them incredibly obese; and upon asking their owners, "Do you feed scratch?" their response has almost always been, "Oh, yes, I feed X amount per day to my flock of X hens!" (X amount of scratch and hens usually being something ridiculous like 1 cup to 6 hens - I wouldn't suggest giving more than a 1/4 cup to that amount of birds and probably not even that!)

    And lastly: if you do want something that can survive largely off the land, you'll need to sacrifice egg production. The only breed I know of being capable of obtaining more than 20% of its diet from free ranging is the American Pit Game. These types of birds are the most commonly found breed of stray chicken, because sometimes they wander a little to far or get chased away from their homes. Not that modern breeds don't do this too - the difference is that these guys actually stay alive long enough to be found. They have gone feral in places such as Hawaii, Florida, and even here in sunny California - in a busy urban area no less. This is because Pit Games are cockfighting fowl; for the last 10,000 years the only selection which has gone into them has been to increase their aggression towards other fowl, which is a hormonal characteristic, not a physical one. Meaning that their biology, aside from their gamy tendencies, has remained close to unchanged in the past 10,000 years of domestication. They are still very much a wild thing, just one which has calmed down enough to live peaceably with humans. But that's the kicker - they cannot be expected to produce well in any way. I have one; she gives me a decent number of eggs, perhaps 50-80 total, in the spring and summer; and her production ceases entirely during the winter and fall. She is considered a very good layer for a gamehen; most will produce fewer than 50.
    4 people like this.
  3. UrbanEnthusiast

    UrbanEnthusiast Chillin' With My Peeps

    Jul 12, 2012
    Port Orford, Oregon
    Well, I also have some silver-spangled Hamburgs and Egyptian Fayoumis that are a bit younger that I plan to integrate into the flock later on. Hatchery stock, yes, but maybe they could hack it without much feed some of the year?
  4. UrbanEnthusiast

    UrbanEnthusiast Chillin' With My Peeps

    Jul 12, 2012
    Port Orford, Oregon
    What do your game hens' eggs taste like???
  5. DaisyBlue

    DaisyBlue Just Hatched

    Apr 11, 2016
    Queen misha, this is a very helpful article. My chickens free range for most of the day when possible and I was concerned about what nutritional value they were getting. They still get fed layer pellets but I've noticed they eat substantially less pellets the longer they are left to free range. In addition, I give them scratch once or twice a day but I'll give them less now given your advice on this being so unhealthy for them. I only have 3 chickens ( new owner) but they are healthy and lay faithfully each day so they must be getting what they need. I think free ranging is much better for them and so far we've not had any trouble with predators.. Unless a hedgehog counts!
  6. QueenMisha

    QueenMisha Queen of the Coop

    They'll eat less feed overall and probably be pretty good free rangers, but they still won't exceed consuming 20% of their diet when free ranging and should still be offered a commercial based ration at all times. In my experience both breeds are quite hardy and active, though the Fayoumis are dumb as rocks. I lost all four of mine to predators in the same year after getting them.

    Just like a normal hen's eggs. They are medium in size and a pale tan/off white.
  7. QueenMisha

    QueenMisha Queen of the Coop

    Thank you. That's the great thing about free ranging in my opinion - it offers supplemental foods to add to their diet without being harmful to their health because the items they are consuming are both very healthy and in low quantity. And yes, it allows them to stretch their legs and exhibit all the natural behaviors they enjoy to the greatest amount possible.

    I definitely don't want to scare people off scratch entirely... since the bird's do enjoy it... but it's definitely very important to limit it significantly. It's basically ice cream for chickens so they should be eating it as a small tasty snack and nothing more.
  8. epatullo

    epatullo Just Hatched

    Feb 26, 2013

    Wow! Excellent reading. [​IMG][​IMG][​IMG][​IMG]
  9. wyoDreamer

    wyoDreamer Chillin' With My Peeps

    Nov 10, 2010
    Where did you get the "20% of their diet" statistic? Not trying to cause issues, I would like to know your source and read the study.
    I think that where you live has an impact on how successful chickens will be when foraging for food. For instance, there is a lot more available to my chickens here in Wisconsin, than there was in Wyoming.
  10. Folly's place

    Folly's place Overrun With Chickens

    Sep 13, 2011
    southern Michigan
    That's partially true, and still doesn't change what QM says. If you want 'natural' chickens, get red jungle fowl and move to southeast Asia, in the jungle. Modern chickens in Wisconsin, or Wyoming, need their balanced ration, and foraging is a bonus for them. Mary

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