These days I see “Free Range” signs all over the place when it comes to the various types of livestock. Whether it’s legit or not is TBD most of the time. But for us BYC farmers there is usually nothing better than letting our girls out to stretch their legs for the afternoon. We all know the benefits of chickens getting exercise, naturally feeding on insects and all the other natural goodies, BUT what about all the predators that also enjoy praying on our precious girls? Foxes, coyotes, raccoons, dogs, minks, owls, raccoons and domestic dogs are the most common predators for our girls. The solution for keeping these guys out of the coop is one thing, but keeping them away during a free-range session is something entirely different.
You might be asking yourself, why even bother with free-ranging? Well, here are some of the pros and cons. In part two of this blog, I will discuss how to keep your girls safe while enjoying your beautiful backyards!
They eat less feed and grit because they are out in the yard all day feasting on what your yard has to offer. They’ll pick up sand, small rocks, and pebbles that aid the chicken in breaking down ingredients that they consume during the day. This means you save where it matters the most (for most of us), your bank account!
Free-ranging will help with insect and other pest control because it’s second nature for chickens and other fowl to actively turning over rocks or stumps in a constant effort to find food aka creepy crawlers. If you have horses, cows or goats you’ve probably noticed the chickens pecking through the manure piles, which may seem yucky, but as long as you remember they are eating fly larvae I’m sure you’ll forgive their manners.
Active birds mean healthier birds and less space needed in the coop! That’s right, if you have a decent-sized yard for your girls to roam, you won’t have to worry about building an oversized coop or raising out of shape hens. Your girls will stay slim and always be ready for the catwalk (lol). We suggest having 4 square feet of space for each bird if they live in the coop 24-7, but if you’re free-ranging you can easily reduce that to 1-2 feet of space since they will be getting plenty of space while they’re outside. The separation during the days will also allow you to spot which chickens have illnesses and treat/quarantine them as opposed to treating the whole flock for illness. Once again, you can save where it matters most.
Since we dove into free-ranging, it wouldn’t be fair to leave out the cons. So here goes…as stated above foxes, coyotes, mink, owls, and raccoons love to hunt chickens at night, but we also need to be wary of day time deviants like hawks, eagles and domestic dogs. We could write an entire blog about protecting your flock (and we will), so for now, just be aware of the culprits and act accordingly.
Egg hunting is another issue with free-ranging chickens, but this could be fun if you’re into Easter egg hunts all year round. LOL! It’s not uncommon to start finding eggs in very random spots after you start free-ranging. One way to remedy this always make up some very attractive laying spots accompanied by a wooden or plastic egg. It’s not a “fix-all” but doing this typically works to reduce the number of random eggs in the dog house. ;-)
Chicken proof your gardens if you want to free-range your girls. If you don’t do this, they will eat your herbs, flowers and anything else they are interested in (everything). The other issue with chicken consuming things in your yard is the possibility of them consuming harmful weed killers, fertilizers or pest poison. Please be mindful of all the things you have going on in your yard before letting your girls roam free.
Chicken Shit! The obvious but not often talked about part of free-ranging. No doubt it’s great for your yard but when you step in it and it ends up on your kitchen floor, IT'S NOT COOL! I have yet to discover a solution for this issue...if you do please share in the comments!
All the best, Emily