Letting chickens free range is a hotly debated topic, with excellent points being made from both sides of the argument. Before you decide whether or not to free range your chickens, let’s take a look at the pro’s and con’s of letting your birds roam free.
The Benefits of Free Range Chickens:
- It’s healthier- No matter which way you look at it, chickens able to forage for themselves have a well-rounded, healthier diet, than those fenced in. Free ranging gives chickens an opportunity to chose what they want to eat, usually bugs, worms, grubs, grass, etc.- all things chickens love to eat!
- You will save money on commercial feed- If your chickens are roaming free all day, that means they are filling up on lots of greens, bugs, and seeds. In return, they won’t need as much commercial feed. NOTE: This does not mean that they don’t need any commercial feed.
- Nutrient packed eggs- All those bugs and other things that your chickens forage on are loaded with nutrients. While some may disagree with me, many of the nutrients that the chickens digest transfer to the eggs. Adding Omega-3, and lots of vitamins A and E, gives us delicious tasting eggs with bright orange yolks. Not to mention, most people will tell you, they taste better.
- Your chickens will be less likely to become overweight- I know you’re probably going, “say what”?!?!- but chickens can become overweight- which can actually become pretty dangerous. The more room they have available to roam, the more exercise they will get.
- Natural pest control- If your chickens free range, your yard will have less pesky insects. Chickens love grasshoppers, grubs, beetles, and ticks- just to name a few. What better way to control your pests naturally than letting your chickens free range.
There are many positives to letting your flock free range, but now it’s time to take a look at the negatives.
I wish that I could tell you that everything about free ranging is great, but it’s not. There are some negative points that you will have to take into consideration before making the final decision.
- Yes, they eat less feed, but…- That doesn’t mean that they won’t eat in your garden or strawberry patch! Chickens LOVE fresh tomatoes, squash, strawberries, as well as other garden “goodies”. You will likely find fresh vegetables in your garden with holes pecked in them, unless you have a fenced in garden, and sometimes that doesn’t even work. Chickens also love flowers, so you will have to keep an eye on your planters and flower beds, as well.
- Chickens love to dig and scratch- While it’s all fine and dandy if they do it in their coop, it might not be all that attractive when they decide to do it in the middle of your front yard!
- Poop everywhere- We’ll, we all do it. If chickens are not contained in a fence area, they will do it wherever they please. It could be on your front porch or back deck, but no matter where, it’s not pretty… or inviting… or pleasant to step in. If you like adding chicken manure to your compost pile or garden, free ranging will make it harder to do so, as it all won’t be in one place if/when you go to pick it up.
- Egg hunts- Who said egg hunts are just for Easter?!?! Yes, even though you’ve provided them with a nice coop, with plenty of nesting boxes, even the most obedient chicken can get a feather up their bum and decide to lay eggs elsewhere. Like in the hayloft, or in a bush, or in that old bale of straw that you put next to the barn and never moved. These are just a few of the places that we’ve discovered eggs, and I’m sure that there are many, many more hiding places out there!
(Here is one of the multiple hiding spots that we found this past summer).
- Predators- Probably one of the biggest downsides to free ranging. Free ranging chickens are at a greater risk from predators than those who are housed in a secure coop and/or pen. Whether you have large animals like coyotes, large predatory birds, foxes, raccoons, or skunks running around, or even just the common neighborhood dog who is always on the run- your flock is at a greater risk when allowed to roam free.
The Best of Both Worlds
There aren’t just two options. It’s not black or white. There are actually a few “in-between” options that have been found to work well.
- The chicken tractor- No, the chickens aren’t going to drive your lawnmower. A chicken tractor is basically a covered run on wheels. The chickens are enclosed, but their house and run are on wheels, which can be moved to a fresh piece of grass daily. A chicken tractor gives the benefits of foraging for food, while being enclosed in a safe environment at the same time. A mobile chicken tractor keeps your chickens out of your garden, in addition to other places where you don’t want them to be. If you don’t want them to go somewhere, simply don’t move them there! Chicken tractors can be purchased ready made in various shapes and sizes, depending on what your needs are. The cost will set you back somewhere in between $150.00 and $1,000- depending on the size and design of your choice.
- Fenced in yard- Many people consider this to be the most “ideal” option, but it can be rather expensive, depending on the size of your yard. Chickens can free range this way, while still being somewhat limited in space. If you plan to go this route, you should still keep an eye on your flock, as some predators may fly over (hawks, eagles, owls, etc.) or dig under (foxes, raccoons, skunks, etc.).
Here are a few fellow homesteaders who have also wrote about similar topics:
- Amy at A Farmish Kind of Life: http://afarmishkindoflife.com/2015/06/5-truths-about-free-range-chickens-2
- Sarah at The Free Range Life: http://thefreerangelife.com/pros-cons-free-range-chickens Annonymous at The Backyard Chicken Farmer: http://www.thebackyardchickenfarmer.com/free-range-chickens-the-good-the-bad-and-the-ugly
I hope that I helped you make your decision, rather than confuse you even more! If you have any questions, comments, or concerns- let me know! 🙂