Traditionally, there have been two schools of thought on the pros and cons of free-range poultry. The first is totally free-range freedom. This usually means an evening feeding of grain or other treat is used to lure the flock back to the coop for roosting. The other school of thought has been no free range at all with confinement to secure chicken pens or runs. These flocks have their nutritional needs met with feed.
Pros and Cons of Free-Range Poultry
In recent years, I’ve seen a developing trend that lands somewhere between these two. With more and more flocks of backyard chickens cropping up in varied environments, there is a trend towards confinement in chicken pens and runs with some free ranging. I’ve heard this called supervised free ranging.
The first thing to consider is, “What does free-range mean?”
I believe there are two definitions of free-range chickens.
In the world of commercial chicken raising, the USDA sets the standards for a chicken to be sold as “free range”. They say the chickens must be allowed access to some outdoor space. I know the words “free range” evoke images of chickens scratching through the grass in an open field, but this is just not the case in the commercial world. If the chickens only have access to a gravel yard, or just spend a few minutes with their doors open, they can be called free range birds.
What Does Free-Range Poultry Mean To Homesteaders?
To any homesteader or backyard chicken keeper, this term has a whole different meaning. To us, it means the flock is allowed to be outside of any confined area for all or part of the day. It may be within a fenced pasture, in your backyard, or out in the open fields. But the flock can move around in nature at will.
Being born and raised on a farm, when I say my birds are free ranged, I mean they are allowed free access to the great outdoors. They have a large chicken yard to roam around in before I open the gates for free ranging. They are fed my chickens once a day in the evening to lure them back to their yard. The chickens come and go as they please from their chicken yard most of the day. As with everything, it’s relative to where you live, how you live, and what you want for your flock.
Free-Ranging your chickens in the winter
Free-ranging poultry in the winter is a little different, especially if you live in an area with a lot of snow. Chickens will stay close to the coop and will not scratch through deep snow for food.
When the winter weather keeps your flock cooped up (pun intended), keeping your chickens entertained makes things easier on them. Many people who have backyard chickens as a hobby have swings for them, some tie special toys in their coops or runs, and others offer them special treats.
As an old fashioned sustenance farmer, I don’t go in for those things. I offer them special things like hot oatmeal, baked squash, including pumpkins, when it’s really cold. I put bales of hay in their yard to give them something to scratch through, that’s about it. Chickens are equipped to handle some cold weather and even some snow and ice, but they are susceptible to frostbite, especially on their cones and wattles. Providing them a snow-free area to scratch around it is appreciated, I’m sure.
Do Chickens Need Heat In The Winter?
There’s always the question, “Do chickens need heat in the winter?” As you know, I’m not for forcing anyone to think like me (that would be scary), or to do things my way. As my grandfather taught me, “There’s as many ways of gettin’ a farm job done as there’s farmers. Ya gotta be willing to listen, help, and learn from ’em, even if it’s just to see what not to do.”
That being said, if it’s below 25 degrees at night, we turn on a heat lamp. It’s secured to the 2”x4” by the coop door and up out of their reach. We’ve never had any problem. Our coop is well ventilated so there is no risk of moisture builds up leading to frostbite. There is an exception. If our flock is 40 birds or over, we don’t use it at all. This number of birds in a 7’x12′ coop is enough to keep them all warm with their body heat. We add extra hay to the laying nests and under the roost for the winter.
Pros of Free-Range Poultry:
• A natural, high-protein diet. This helps make for gorgeous golden yolks, egg production and longevity of life. When a chicken free ranges, about 70% of what they will consume will be protein.
• The drive to scratch, peck, and the hunt is met. This keeps them occupied and entertained.
• Saves money. Less grain is required to feed them.
• Variety of diet ensuring all nutritional needs are met.
• They’ll make their own dust bath areas.
• You won’t have to put out grit. They find their own.
• They maintain a healthy weight while being physically fit.
• Better tasting eggs
• They eat all the bugs and spiders from your yard and around your home.
• They’ll till your garden beds for you
• You’ll have happy chickens. Mine run to the fence and talk to each other about getting out.
• Put fertilizer (chicken poop) out for you – everywhere
Cons of Free Range – Interestingly enough, some of the Cons are directly related to the Pros.
• They till your gardens. Even the ones you don’t want them in. You must have a way to keep them out.
• They leave chicken poop everywhere they go.
• They’re at risk for being taken by a predator.
• They’ll eat just about everything, including your favorite flowers.
• Because of their strict pecking order, some hens may not get enough food or water. Offering multiple feed and water stations will help but won’t guarantee each hen gets enough.
• You’ll have to ensure enough room for each bird. If they’re too crowded, you’ll have problems with picking and their health.
• You’ll have to provide a dust bath. Lice, mites, and feather problems will be a problem if the flock isn’t allowed to dust.
• Unless you’ve trained them to lay in their nests, they won’t go back to lay.
• If you live close to a neighbor, the chickens may find their way to that yard and become annoying to your neighbor.
• They’ll scratch up your flower beds to make a dust bath.
• You’ll lose some fertilizer because it won’t be in the yard for you to collect.
• Unless you train them, you may have trouble getting them to come to roost at night.
• The risk of boredom.
Raising Healthy Chickens
One thing we can all agree on is the common goal for our flocks. We each want them to be healthy, happy, and as safe as possible. We have used a stand of trees, poultry wire, hardware wire and bird netting to offer our flock protection when they’re in their yard. When they’re free ranging, the rooster, dogs, and undergrowth offer them protection.
How I teach them where to lay
When I add young pullets to the flock, I leave the flock confined to the yard when they are about to start laying. You know they are about to start laying when their cones and wattles turn bright red, their leg color lightens up, and they will squat when you walk up to them. They do the squatting for the rooster to fertilize the eggs forming.
I also put ceramic eggs in the nests for them to see. I give them a couple of weeks of laying in the nests to ensure they know the routine. Then I free range the flock again, but a little later in the morning for a couple of weeks. This helps reinforce their laying habits. Then it’s back to our normal routine.
How I trained my flock to come back to the yard
I don’t know how many years, I have fed from a white bucket. When I take garden or kitchen scraps to them, I take them in the white bucket. From just a few weeks of age, they know the white bucket means food. I do this to teach them to come to me and the yard for the white bucket. If they’re out free ranging and it’s time for them to come to the yard for roosting time, the white bucket will bring them. They will come running from every direction. Just a shake of the bucket will call any stragglers.
The use of chicken tractors is popular with those who live in an area where free ranging isn’t lawful or for those who don’t want to free range. A chicken tractor can be any form of a covered run on wheels. They’re easily moved from one spot of fresh grass to another while leaving a fertilized area behind. This offers your flock the benefits of foraging on grass and whatever bugs happen to be in the area. It also keeps them out of the areas you don’t want them in. The flock is protected from predators in the enclosed “tractor”.
Another option is to provide a covered fenced area large enough for your flock to move around in. They’ll get some of the benefits of free-ranging, but they’ll be safe. Your gardens and porches will also be safe from scratching and pooping. This method will require you to replant grass or provide some other form of fodder for them. They will quickly destroy all vegetation and “protein” life in an enclosed area. This is a viable option also, it just requires careful planning.
Are Free-Range Chickens For You?
So, is free ranging an option for you? Don’t feel bad if it’s not. You may not be willing to risk the loss of a bird to predators. You may live in an area where free ranging is an option. No matter what the reason, with a little extra care you can provide a happy, healthy life for your flock.
Are you a free-range chicken keeper? Good for you. I know the pleasure of watching the flock find treats and call to each other, the joy of the entertainment they provide, and the satisfaction of a healthy, happy flock.
Be sure to share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below. A Happy, Healthy Flock to You!
Safe and Happy Journey,
Rhonda and Roxie