How to Raise Free Range Chickens

The Pros and Cons of Raising Free Range Chickens

how-to-raise-free-range-chickens

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.

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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.”

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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.

how-to-raise-free-range-chickens
Cons of Free Ranging Your Flock

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.

Compromises

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

The Farmer's Lamp Pack

I hope this helps answer the question how to raise free range chickens!

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Comments
  • Hi, I really enjoyed the info you shared…it “sort of” put me at ease about my Free-range training. Just one question…my flock (8) hens…seemed to do better at the whole free-range thing a couple of weeks ago; now it seems like they are just waiting for me to put out the feeder ! I have been trying to reduce it to once per day…in the evening to get them back into the coop…but, I feel like I am starving them if I don’t give them a 5 minute “breakfast” in the morning, before letting them out to free-range. ( I made a 50’x50′ pen, which will soon be bird netted as well…), but I really want them to have more access to the yard…when I am around.

    My question….Am I starving them…hurting future egg production( they are still about 4 weeks out from laying ). How much feed and how often ?

    Thank you !

    Reply
  • Thank u for the great article. I am lucky to free range my 5 chickens. I have food available in the coop all the time. They mostly eat it in the mornings while waiting for me to let them out. I give dried mealworms as one of their treats, i shake the bag and they all come running. They have always been good to return to the coop at night. I can wait till dark to close it up so its easier for me.

    Reply
  • Great article and I can certainly relate. My chickens are free ranging for the last 2 1/2 years. They intermingle with our wild peacocks who are numerous, they have always stayed on the property, love wild bird food also (the sunflower seeds especially), they have several drinking
    stations, get mealworms and they also get saltine crackers crushed that they love each morning, and they go crazy for red grapes that they get about three times a week as an afternoon snack. They are a delight and my sweet babies. We had three chickens but down to two now. They are little over three years old now.

    Reply
  • i have about 40 hens. they have a 10×12 building to roost and lay eggs in, they have an area 15×15 that’s fully enclosed for safty and thats where they are at night. during the day they run in a fenced area about 100×100. it is covered with wood chips and pine needles, and they love scrachting and dirt bathing. the area is devoid of anything growing now and im wondering what i can thow out to supply the green stuff. thanks for your help.

    Reply
  • Good article, thank you. What i did with the Americanas, is, once they feathered out pretty good, they went into a chicken tractor (early version, was an on the grass rabbit hutch). When that got crowded, they were allowed to roam all day, and a little feed brought them to the hutch at night, till the bear showed. After that, they went to be early, in a pine tree. There, the owls couldn’t get them. They stayed until close to laying age, then were introduced to the coop, and took to it with a few bribes. The hens were kept inside till about noon, then let out for the day. These were straight run, and the best rooster was kept, the rest went to stew. One problem, someone gave us two Polish hens. While great layers, they preferred to do so in the woods (a smaller breed, they bounced over the fence 🙂 and we got a few hatches of good crossbred chickens form them. Nope, we liked that, and the grandkids were awed, so they were fine. By winter, they stuck to the coop, but the Americana would still go out and scratch thru the snow for greens and anything else they could find. Much thanks, this was a fun article and well written.

    Reply
  • I have had my hens and roos free ranging in our forested property for about 8 years now. The go home to roost at night except if there has been a predator about in which case they take to the trees and I have to get creative about how to convince them that all is well and they can go home. I now have an automatic door opener/closer on the main enclosure and the hens seem to know the time the door is about to open. I let them out at noon and the door closes at dusk and all seem to know when that is going to happen and are home and roosting. They all get free access to the compost pile, so greens and veggies and fruits are always available and they seem to know when enough is enough. I get the most beautiful eggs from my girls and I wouldn’t trade them. I have discovered that chicks raised in with the flock are FAR better off than ones that are raised in view of, but apart from, the rest of the flock. I will be allowing my hens to do what they know best about raising babies, and keep my interference to a minimum.

    Reply
  • Have been free ranging my hens for almost 20 years, always learning something new. I have a run that they can come and go from and two acres of land available. Have to fence in my garden and net my berries. Guineas, have 4 females and one male are the watchdogs, eat the ticks and are just fun to watch. Have one little Indian Runner Duck, female, she is as sweet as she can be. Have to bring her in when it is bitter cold but she is worth it!

    Reply
  • I have a small yard of 25/30m in the township, when I started with only 2 hens and one rooster it was very easy and I didn’t do much besides feeding some grain in the afternoons.
    My flock grew to over ten hens and during the laying Season they will be mixing up, a few laying in the same spot and there’ll be many eggs in one place which I tried sharing but worked against me as none of them ended hatching after days and days of the hens sitting on the eggs and all would be rotten.
    This season I lost over a hundred eggs and only got a handful of new chicks.
    I will appreciate any advice on how to resolve my problem, I just love my chickens and I sometimes feel like they are talking to me although cannot understand their language.
    I have given up having any plants in my yard as they clean everything that attempts to grow and I am no longer bothered.

    Reply
  • I live in N. E. Ohio. We get plenty of snow here and my birds free range all year long. When plowing the driveway I always plow near the barn so they can get to the grass.
    I only add a heat lamp at 10 degrees or less.
    I’ve never had a problem with them laying anywhere but the nest boxes and as far as the returning to the coop goes, I open the door at 6 am and close it shortly after dark. A headcount lets me know if all are present. If not, I make a quick check outside and either find the straggler or evidence of predation. As long as it doesn’t get out of hand, I chalk it up to feeding the natives. If it happens again, I resort to a different plan that includes predator control!

    Reply
  • Very nice article. Perhaps I missed it, however it would have been nice if you would have suggested what types of chickens are more suited to free ranging or what chickens you own. It would save a lot of research on the readers part.

    Reply
  • Loved your article. Just started free ranging my 8 birds. It’s a pleasure watching them roam. Your article provided a lot of detail and made me feel more comfortable with letting them roam. We are on 9 acres and they’ve barely covered half. They seem to be enjoying theirselves quite a bit. I trained them to a red bag of mealworms, once they see the bag, they come running to the coop in the evenings. Never really knew you could train a chicken of all things!

    Reply
  • Hi all, I’m a new chicken lady, and love it so far! We have four hens that are about 6 mos old and they each lay/bless us daily; until a few ago our American just stopped laying! She was giving us beautiful large green eggs daily for about 10 days, then just stopped! We are puzzled as to why??? Anyone have any suggestion!?!?

    Reply
  • I have a question. My chickens aren’t laying eggs like they used to. How old are they when they quit laying? Some of mine are 2 years old.

    Reply
  • Thank you for your great article. It was gratifying to note that as a beginner, I am doing most of everything you have noted. I lost 3 hens because of not free ranging (fatty liver). I also lost 2 baby pullits after I started free ranging to a hawk. I was crushed all 4 times. But from your article, I seem to be on the right track. I am from southern california on the coast and I live in an avocado orchard. They have 4 acres to roam in but prefer my garden and they particularly love my shamrocks planted among the flowers. Geese they ate 2 roots and all. I’ve tried planting a garden for them – but they eat it to the ground. Piggy chickens but I really enjoy their antics. My friends come over, we sit in the garden watching them and drinking wine. Loving retirement. Thanks again.

    Reply
  • Hi we are new to this. We live on a smallish lot in a sub division with 2 seemingly very healthy and happy Barred Rock Hens. We feed them the absolute best and provide all the necessary supplements for optimal health. However, during the day we work full time. In the afternoons they are let out to free range and roam with our family. We are VERY close with our flock. They play with the kids and the dogs like they are family. At night they demand I hold them like babies while they fall asleep.

    But I want to make sure this is enough for them! I’m always wanting to do the best I can! Is this enough freedom for them? How can one ensure their chickens are happy?

    Reply

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