Knowing how to free range chickens can save you money on your feed bill. There are pros and cons to it though. There are many considerations to be made as well. Learn how to free range your chickens to save money and have the happiest, healthiest flock possible.
Traditionally, there have been two schools of thought on the pros and cons of free-range poultry. The first is a totally free-range flock. 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 a large run. These flocks must have their nutritional needs met with a non-GMO complete chicken feed.
How to Free Range Chickens – Pros and Cons
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. It does require supplementing more with free range layer feed or some other non-GMO commercial feed.
What does free-range mean to the USDA?
There are two different ways to think about free-range chickens.
In the world of commercial chicken raising, the USDA sets the standards for what it means to have chickens free-range on the label.
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 technically be called free range birds.
It does not specify how much space free-ranging chickens need (any small pieces of open space can qualify) or how much time free-range birds have access to the small space. Seems they need to learn how to free range chickens in real life.
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.
This free range life may be within a fenced pasture, in your backyard, or out in the tall grass of open fields. But the flock can move around in nature at will.
Being born and raised on a small farm, when I say my birds are free ranged, I mean they are allowed free access to the great outdoors.
They have a large run area for their chicken yard to roam around in before I open the gates for free ranging. The chickens come and go as they please from their chicken yard most of the day.
They are fed a little non-GMO feed or some other treat out of the chicken bucket in the evening to lure them back to their yard.
As with everything, it’s relative to where you live, how you live, and what you want for your flock.
Free-Ranging 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 some backyard flocks have a small area that looks like a chicken wire covered Spa!
As an old fashioned sustenance farmer, I thought it was a good idea to use the acres of land we have access to. Using a portable coop, free ranging chickens, and maintaining a strong backyard ecosystem was the best option for their happy life.
I offer them special things like hot oatmeal, and 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 in 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, 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, they get the help of heat from a safety lamp. It’s secured to the 2”x4” just inside 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 building up leading to frostbite.
There is an exception. If our flock is 40 birds or over, we don’t use heat at all. This number of birds in a backyard chicken coop that measures 7’x12′ (or around 84 square feet) is enough to keep them all warm with their own body heat.
We add an extra one of our small hay bales to the laying nests and under the roost each winter.
Pros of Free-Range Poultry
- A natural, high-protein diet. This helps make for gorgeous golden yolks, high egg production, fresh eggs, 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 feed is required to feed them. You can even eliminate your feed bill.
- Variety of diet ensuring all nutritional needs are met.
- They’ll make their own dust baths in appropriate areas.
- You won’t have to put out grit. They find their own.
- They maintain a healthy weight while being physically fit.
- Free range hens produce healthier eggs than a caged hen due to the varied diet and health issues that come with poor exercise.
- Insect control is a breeze. From helping clean grubs out of your garden during winter to putting a dent in the black soldier fly larvae. Insects have great nutritional value! When they free-range, they find and eat more insects giving them a more complete diet.
- They’ll till your garden beds or compost area for you to fertilize and aerate the soil.
- You’ll have happy chickens. Mine run to the fence and talk to one another other when I come to let them out to free-range.
- They put organic fertilizer (chicken manure) out for you – everywhere your flock of free-range chickens go!
- You won’ have to worry about having lots of space in your chicken yard or coop to allow for confinement.
Cons of Free Range Chickens
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 away from toxic plants.
- They leave chicken poop everywhere they go.
- They’re at risk of being taken by a predator.
- They’ll eat just about everything, including your favorite flowers and young plants.
- 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 chicken yard for you to collect.
- Unless you train them, you may have trouble getting them to come to roost at night.
If you don’t free range your poultry there are a few things you should keep in mind.
- 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 make sure the square foot of your chicken house is large enough for the number and breeds you keep. If they’re too crowded, there will be problems with pecking and fights.
- 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.
- The risk of unhappy bored chicks. Longing to taste of free range life, they will start trying to flutter over the fence to escape all day confinement.
- There will be an increase risk of chicken diseases, especially if not allow adequate space per bird.
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 My Hens Where to Lay
When I add young pullets to the flock, who are about to start laying, I leave the flock confined to the yard.
You will 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 for a couple of weeks, I release them a little later in the morning to free range the flock. This helps reinforce their laying habits.
Then it’s back to our normal routine.
How I Train My Flock to Come Back to the Chicken 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.
Compromises for Free Ranging Poultry
As with all of life , there are compromises to learning how to free range chickens.
1)The use of small chicken tractors is the best way for compromise. It works well for those who live in an area where free ranging is restricted or for those chicken keepers who don’t want to free-range hens.
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 mobile coop, especially if you have a guard dog. If you have baby chicks over 6 weeks old without a mother hen, then a small mobile coop is a great way to protect them and introduce young chicks for the first time
2) Another option is to provide a large area covered and fenced for your flock to have a chicken run.
They’ll get some of the benefits of free-ranging, and with the right setup, keep them from becoming a predator’s free meal.
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.
Instead of throwing produce scraps in the compost bin add them to your chicken bucket for a treat. You also will need to give them a non-GMO unique layer feed to help them produce healthy eggs. This viable option requires careful planning.
Are Free-Range Chickens for You?
Don’t feel bad if free ranging is not right for you. You may not be willing to risk the loss of a bird to predators. You may live in an area where free ranging is not 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, the high quality of free range eggs, 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!
As always, I’m here to help.