ranging your chicken flock has a lot of advantages (and just sounds idyllic),
but you’ll also run into several problems. If you understand the
potential pitfalls up front, chances are you can work around them and
give your flock limited or complete access to free range.
- Predators — Coops,
pastures, and chicken tractors give your flock some protection from
predators (not least because they keep the chickens under your watchful
eye.) The reality is that free range birds are a lot more prone
to be eaten by hawks,
foxes, raccoons, neighborhood dogs, and even your own pets (if you
don’t train them well.) You’ll have to decide whether losing an
occasional chicken to predators is worth lower feed costs and healthy
- Garden damage — Don’t
let anyone tell you that chickens and gardens mix, because they
don’t. Chickens are very good at eating your tomatoes, scratching
up seedlings, and strewing mulch all over the garden paths.
However, we have recently discovered a few ways to work around this
problem and still let our chickens out from time to time. One
option is to fence off the garden — even a partial fence can do the
trick. We let our laying flock out on the back side of the
pasture, and they just don’t feel like walking all the way around the
pasture fence and barn to get the garden, so they’ve been foraging in
the woods. Another option is to let young chickens free range,
then corral them once they reach two months old (at which point we’ve
found they begin to scratch up the garden rather than just weeding out
the chickweed.) Finally, if you only grow vegetables in the
summer, you can turn the flock into the garden area after the first
killing frost and let them eat up weeds and insects, fertilizing the
ground for next year.
- Coming home to roost —
more your chickens roam, the less likely they are to come home to the
coop at night. This is a problem for several reasons: more chance
of getting eaten at night if they’re further from home; less chance of
laying in the next box where you’ll find their eggs; and tougher to
manage birds if you can’t pluck individuals off the roost at night to
cull or separate.
It’s important not to let your birds get into the habit of
roosting in the trees (like our laying flock did last week when they
got stuck in the bushes, not realizing they’d have to backtrack in the
wrong direction to get home.) Saving a bit of your chickens’
ration to be fed at dusk is a great way to get them to come home.
- Chicken poop — Your
chickens will probably like to hang out where you are, which means
there will be blobs of chicken poop on your front porch, your walkway,
and everywhere else. If this bothers you, you might choose to
fence off select areas.
- Unhappy neighbors — Our
closest neighbor is half a mile away, and I’m 99% sure our chickens
will never make it across the creek and through the woods to bother
them. However, closer neighbors might be less thrilled to have
chickens scratching up their vegetable garden and pooping on their
steps. Good fences make good neighbors (and I’ve heard gifts of
free range eggs help too.)
We’re resting our pastures this winter by free ranging the flock as much as possible, but we’re also taking our own advice. Once the nine week old broilers started scratching up my garlic, they got relegated to the orchard half of the yard, and we’ve been giving them a snack every evening before shutting them in the coop for a safe night’s sleep. So far, we’re enjoying the best of both worlds — happy and healthy chickens and a free range method we can live with.