Free Range Chickens - it's easy
Many people decide to free range chickens for a variety of reasons. Let's look at those reasons, and then let's look at both sides of the issue.
Although allowing something to "free range" is relatively easy, there are some factors that need to be considered. Once you know the pros and cons of the "free range" approach, you can make a better decision.
I've raised chickens for years. My chickens stay inside an protective enclosure most of the time. My protective enclosures aren't cages so much as they are fenced-in yards. I allow them to "free range," but they really prefer the yard.
I think they know that it's a safe place to be.
Why Might we Free Range Chickens?
The main reason for using a "free range" approach to raising chickens is to allow the chickens to be free. We enjoy our freedom, and we think it's a good way to raise our chickens as well.
We like the idea that our chickens aren't inside of small cages that are typical of commercial chicken and egg operations. No animal should be caged up unless it's really necessary.
Another reason to free range chickens is to allow them to forage naturally. When placed in a small enclosure, chickens will quickly turn even the heaviest sod into bare dirt. They will scratch and peck until every bug, worm and blade of grass is completely consumed.
When chickens are free to wander around outside, they can find their own cheap chicken food on and in the ground under their feet.
Free Range Chickens - two methods
There are a couple of different methods that can be used when you free range chickens. The primary method I use is to just open the gate to their enclosure and let them run free. They tend to stay very close to the protective enclosure, although I have had chickens stray a hundred feet or so away from the enclosure.
This is the easiest method, but it also limits your ability to manage and protect the flock. Chickens don't tend to wander too far, but they don't care whether they're digging up your lawn, your driveway or your flowerbeds.
Another method is to use a "chicken tractor" and put the chickens inside it. A "chicken tractor" is very much like a large movable pen with a roof. It provides the chickens with protection from predators and the sun, while allowing them to be out on the pasture scratching, pecking and eating whatever they happen to find.
Benefits of Free Range Chickens
The primary benefit of free range chickens is that your chickens aren't in a pen. Therefore they have a quality of life that is much different than what they would otherwise have in a cage.
Another benefit is that the chickens are free to find their own food. Not only is the food natural, but it's also much cheaper than trying to feed the birds with commercial chicken food. Some of the natural food they'll find include bugs, worms, grass and leaves.
I can't attest to the happiness factor, but I have to assume that free range chickens are happier about their situation than they otherwise would be in a caged environment. I'm all in favor of happy chickens.
There are a few drawbacks of free range chickens. Let's take a quick look at them.
The first drawback is predators. Once your chickens are out from behind their protective enclosure, they are much more susceptible to becoming dinner for another animal.
Chickens running free can wander away from your home or barn, and right into areas where predators are waiting. Even if your chickens are close to the house, once they are outside their protective enclosure, predators can get mighty brave and adventurous.
A friend of mine uses a "chicken tractor" made from chicken wire. Foxes have dug under the tractor and coyotes have torn their way through the chicken wire to get at his birds. He has lost a lot of birds because of his inability to keep predators at bay.
I lost four chickens out of 20 that were free ranging one afternoon. Predators hunt both in the night and during the day, so if you free range chickens, you might want to stay with them or have a guard dog that recognizes the chickens as his responsibility.
Another drawback of free range chickens is fresh water. How do you get fresh water to your chickens? You either have to have a source of water out in the pasture, or you have to hang watering devices inside the "chicken tractor" so your flock can stay sufficiently hydrated.
Lastly, if your chickens are for egg production, then how will you collect the eggs while they free range? Chickens will lay eggs just about anywhere, so you have to provide them with a nest for their "cackle berries."
If they're out in the pasture, they might not return to a nest when it's time to lay eggs. If they're in a "chicken tractor," you can provide them with a nest box inside the tractor.
Even if they lay in the nest boxes while they free range, you'll have to go to the birds to get the eggs. This probably won't be as convenient as collecting eggs from their normal enclosure.
An Alternative to Free Range Chickens
My approach to chickens focuses on a large protective enclosure so my girls have plenty of room to roam, and the food and water are close at hand. Also, nest boxes are just a short distance away from wherever the girls might be scratching, pecking or having a dust bath.
One of the advantages to this approach is that food, water and nests are always in the same location. It's convenient for me, and the bird brains find it easy too.
The drawback of this approach is that the ground gets stripped of natural nutrients quickly, and chicken droppings kill off what the chickens don't otherwise denude with their constant scratching and pecking.
The solution to this "over grazing" of the chicken enclosure is to create separate adjoining enclosures that are available to the girls on a rotational basis. This allows each enclosure to grow back to continue to provide the chickens with good free food.
Making a Choice
My approach to frugal living has me raising chickens primarily for eggs in large enclosures. If I free range chickens out on the pasture, they're too susceptible to predators. When I lose a chicken, I lose egg production and I lose the time and money that I have invested in the chicken.
Since I have ample room for multiple large enclosures (and I get my fencing dirt cheap at the scrap yard), my choice is to create large enclosures as the primary safe spot for my girls.
I'll free range chickens using a "chicken tractor" on occasion, but I don't like the inconvenience of remote watering and remote egg nests, and I won't trust the "chicken tractor" to be predator proof. The foxes and coyotes around here are just too bold and brave for me to let my chickens stay out on the pasture - they need the protection of a permanent enclosure.
My message to the local predators is simple - these are free range chickens, not free range food.
Done with Free Range Chickens, back to Small Animals