What Every Chicken Owner Needs to Know About Free-Ranging Their Birds

Ever had questions about free-range chickens? You’re not alone! Join us as we delve into the fascinating world of these feathered friends. We’ll address everything you’ve wondered about this beautiful way to keep chickens.

A collage of watercolor scenes featuring a young girl feeding chickens, chickens by a barn, and a fox in a vibrant, autumnal setting.

What Makes Chickens ‘Free-Range’?

When we talk about free-range chickens, we’re discussing the way farmers raise these birds. They have freedom to move around. Chickens kept in coops have outdoor access in a small, fenced run area. This is not free range. Free range chickens. are out in the open.

When you buy eggs marked free range, it can mean different things. In some places, regulations define what counts as free-range. They specify how much outdoor space each chicken should have and how long they should spend outside. In other cases, it might be more loosely interpreted.

Are free range chickens happier?

Put yourself in a chicken’s shoes. Wouldn’t you like to wander, peck at the ground, socialize, and enjoy a bit of the sunshine? Or would you rather be (literally) cooped up all day.

Many animal welfare experts agree that free-range living conditions are more natural. They contribute to better mental and physical well-being for chickens. They’re not just cooped up all day, which can lead to stress and aggressive behavior. It’s about quality of life, and having space to roam and behave naturally goes a long way in ensuring that.

Having said that, they do not have longer lives. That’s for sure. But they are happier while they are here.

Do you need to feed free-range chickens?

Yes, but much less. Your feed bill will be much lower than if they were in the coop full time. But you can’t skip the feed altogether.

They roam around and peck at various things and eat grass and bugs. But their natural foraging often doesn’t provide all the nutrients they need. A balanced diet is key for their egg production.

A young girl in overalls feeds free-range chickens from a bowl, with a warm, rustic barn in the background.

You’ll still need to provide them with a good quality chicken feed, either crumble or pellets.

In the winter or during bad weather, when they might not roam as much, this feed becomes even more crucial. You can also supplement their diet with table scraps and crushed eggshells. Free-ranging or not, a farmer has to feed their chickens to keep them healthy and happy.

How Can You Keep Free-range Hens Safe?

There’s no foolproof way to guarantee the safety of free-range chickens from predators. It’s part of the trade-off of giving them a freer, more natural lifestyle. The reality is that you will likely lose some hens to predators. It’s a natural risk that comes with allowing them to roam and experience the outdoors.

A solitary fox wanders through a watercolor forest with fallen leaves, illustrating the natural predators free-range chickens might face.

This reality is something every free-range chicken keeper needs to be prepared for.

But here are some ways to improve the odds:

  • Have a very secure nighttime coop. They must be locked up every night, no exceptions.
  • Consider a livestock guardian dog. Dogs and chickens can be friends.
  • Keep the hens in the coop the first few hours of the morning. Predators are often out well into the dawn.
  • Be outside as much as. possible. A human presence often keeps trouble at bay.

Will they eat outdoor cat food/ bird seed/ dog food?

Absolutely. Chickens are pretty curious creatures and notorious opportunists when it comes to food. If they stumble upon bird seed, cat food, or dog food, they’re likely to give it a try. They don’t really discriminate when it comes to pecking at something that looks edible.

However, just because they’ll eat it doesn’t mean they should. Foods like cat and dog food aren’t ideal for chickens. They’re formulated for carnivores and can be too high in proteins and fats for chickens.

So yes, this is a constant problem if you keep animal food out.

Will chickens bother my vegetable garden?

Yes, and this is one of the biggest drawbacks of all. If you’ve got a vegetable garden, your free-range chickens might think you’ve set up a buffet just for them. Chickens are natural foragers and love pecking around for bugs and greens. Unfortunately, this means they can wreak havoc on your veggies. They’ll peck at leaves, scratch up the soil, and may even enjoy a fresh tomato or two.

Watercolor image of free-range chickens by an old wooden cottage amidst a golden sunrise with autumn foliage

You can prevent your feathered friends from snacking on your veggies by using chicken wire or a fenced-off area. Also they tend to lose interest in it as time goes on.

You can keep them in their coop for a few crucial weeks of the season. (when you plant sunflowers, or when the tomatoes first ripen) and work around this problem.

When should you start free ranging?

When you start to free-range your young hens, also known as pullets, it’s a bit like teaching kids to ride bikes. You don’t just send them out into traffic!

Ideally, you want to wait until they’re around 12 to 16 weeks old. By this age, they’re usually big enough to fend off small predators. They’re also savvy enough to understand the concept of returning to the coop at night.

Before letting them roam free, it’s a good idea to supervise their initial outings. This way, they get used to the boundaries and dangers of their new environment while under your watchful eye. Also, make sure they’re familiar with their coop so they know where home is. Think of it as expanding their world while keeping a close eye on their safety.

How do you start free ranging?

You open the coop door, prop it open, and walk away.

The hens will come slowly at first, and stay near the coop. Overtime they will become comfortable roaming farther and farther.

They will naturally return to the coop at dusk, just like magic.

You may prefer to start with a few hours in the afternoon so they are only out for a little bit. It’s up to you.

How do free range chickens impact the environment?

It’s mostly positive, but with a few nuances. Free-range chickens help with pest control by eating bugs. They can also act as natural fertilizers for your land with their droppings. This can reduce the need for chemical pesticides and fertilizers. That’s great for the environment.

A watercolor painting of a rustic barn with free-range chickens in the foreground, scratching and pecking on a sunlit farmyard

But, there’s a flip side. If not managed properly, they can overgraze an area. This leads to soil erosion and damage to local plant life. This would only be a problem if you had a large flock in a small yard.

Learn More About Free-ranging your hens

Be careful, free-ranging can get people riled up and everyone has an opinion. Your chickens, your rules. That being said, outside resources can be very helpful.

Storey's Guide to Raising Chickens, 3rd EditionStorey’s Guide to Raising Chickens, 3rd EditionGardening with Free-Range Chickens For DummiesGardening with Free-Range Chickens For DummiesKarakachan Dog: All about Karakachan Livestock Guardian Dogs: Karakachan Dog Breed Facts and InformationKarakachan Dog: All about Karakachan Livestock Guardian Dogs: Karakachan Dog Breed Facts and Information

 

  • Local Farming Community Contacts: Connecting with local farmers or poultry clubs can be invaluable. These communities have firsthand experience and can offer practical advice and tips.
  • Online Forums and Groups: Websites like Backyard Chickens have active forums where other chicken keepers share advice. This can be a great place to ask questions.
  • Local Agricultural Extension Offices: These offices are a fantastic resource for information on local agricultural practices, including free-range chicken rearing. They can provide region-specific advice.

Each chicken and each flock has its own personality and quirks, and getting to know them is part of the fun. If you decide free-ranging is for you, I hope your chickens thrive in their natural, happy environment ❤️.

What Every Chicken Owner Needs to Know About Free-Ranging Their Birds

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