In the discussion of raising chickens, there have been two traditional schools of thought. The first is total free range. Usually, an evening feeding of grain or other treat is used to lure the flock back to the chicken coop for roosting. The other school of thought has been confinement to a secure chicken run and coop. The nutritional needs of these backyard chickens being met with feed. In recent years, I’ve seen a developing trend that lands somewhere between these two schools of thought. With more and more flocks of backyard chickens cropping up in various environments, there is a trend toward confinement in chicken pens and runs with some free ranging. I’ve heard this called supervised free ranging.
Of course, the first question to answer how to raise free range chickens is, what does free range chicken mean? I believe there are two definitions of free range chickens.
The first applies to 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 of 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.
To any anyone homesteading today or backyard chicken keeper, this term has a whole different meaning. To us, it means our flock is allowed to be outside of a 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 is allowed to move around in nature at will.
I was born and raised on a farm, and I’ve had my own flock for more than 30 years. 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. I feed my chickens once a day. They are allowed to come and go as they please from their chicken yard most of the day.
If it’s breeding time for the hawks, I feed the flock in the morning and let them out a little later. They’re allowed to roam until they put themselves up to roost at night. From late fall through winter, I let them out in the morning and feed them around 5 PM to put them back in their yard. I do this because of the chicken predators roaming the farm during these hours of the winter. 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 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. We don’t get much, if any, snow so my flock has the opportunity to free range most all the winter. Except on the worst of days, I open the gates and let them do as they please.
When the winter weather keeps your flock confined to a chicken pen and run, keeping your chickens entertained makes things easier on them. Many people who have backyard chickens as a hobby, have chicken swings for them, some tie special toys in their coops or runs and others offer them special treats. Now, I’m an old fashioned sustenance farmer and don’t go in for those things. I offer them special things like hot oatmeal, baked squash, or 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 frost bite, especially on their cones and wattles. Providing them a snow free area to scratch around in is appreciated, I’m sure.
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 F 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 build-up leading to frost bite. There is an exception. If our flock is 40 birds or over, we don’t use it at all. This number of birds in our 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 Ranging Your Flock
- 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 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. Lice, mites, and feather problems will be a problem if the flock isn’t allowed to dust.
- 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.
- Chickens have a strict pecking order. If you keep your flock confined, 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 won’t have to worry about ensuring enough room for each bird. If they’re too crowded, you’ll have problems with picking and their health.
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 have to have a way to keep them out.
- They leave chicken poop everywhere they go.
- They’re at risk for being taken by a chicken predator.
- They’ll eat just about everything, including your favorite flowers.
- 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.
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 use 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. In the last year, we’ve only lost two birds to predators. One was to a hawk and the other to snake bite.
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 When I Want Them
For I don’t know how many years, I have fed the flock 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 I’m ready for them to come to the yard before roosting time, I go out with the white bucket. They will come running from every direction. I shake it a little to call any stragglers. They all come in to see what I’ve brought.
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 when they’re moved. 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.
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 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, and the satisfaction of a healthy, happy flock.
Be sure to share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below. You can always reach me personally and I’ll help in any way I can. A Happy, Healthy Flock to You!
Safe and Happy Journey,
Rhonda and The Pack
I hope this helps answer the question how to raise free range chickens!