Why pen up hens if they can be free ranged

Ducks with honeyberry

A month ago, I started pondering — why shut our chickens and ducks up into rotational pastures in the spring if they can just free range all year long? My memory is terrible, so I’d forgotten just how much trouble poultry get up to in the growing season if left to their own devices.

First there are the ducks, who ever since the big flood, have been a bit hit or miss about giving me eggs. Oh, sure, they lay eggs (a dependable egg per duck per day)…but not in the coop unless we chase them inside every night.

Meanwhile, as the weather warmed up, our ducks started bedding down further and further afield until one day we didn’t find the waterfowl until nearly dark. They’d settled in to float out the night in our main creek, and I couldn’t even reach the girls to chase them home. That’s when I knew that if we wanted eggs for breakfast, things were going to have to change.

Nest box

The chickens were causing problems too, but in a different way. It all began in February, when the first hens to pick up production decided that their current coop wasn’t worth laying eggs inside. Instead, three bad hens opted to jump over our perimeter fences, scratch up the garden, and then lay eggs in the weeds.

So I stuffed the troublesome trio in the chicken tractor, and everything calmed back down. Until, that is, I got it into my head that I’d let the tractored hens loose into the tree alley to work up that mulch prior to planting. Unfortunately, the girls didn’t even last an hour before they remembered that they liked to fly fences…and back they were in the main garden.

I could have put the three bad hens back in the tractor, but I was worn out that day and found it easier to simply chase them back into our main flock instead. As a result, the girls kept flying fences, but this time they opted to fly into our backup coop (earmarked for the spring chicks) to lay in that nest box. Since the hens weren’t causing problems in the garden anymore (flying over the fence into that coop’s pasture, running in the pophole to lay, then flying right back over the fence into the woods), I decided to leave well enough alone…for a while.

Pastured poultry

But then came the bad-duck night, and the next morning our waterfowl found a hole in the perimeter fence and ended up beside the secondary coop at the same time that our chickens found a different hole and ended up in nearly the same place. I figured our girls knew what they wanted — to be back in a rotational pasture attached to the backup coop — so Mark fixed the pasture holes while I shut the girls in.

You’d think that free ranging would be what our poultry crave, but the truth is that a managed pasture offers more tasty tidbits at this time of year than an overgrazed barnyard. Cautionary pastureTo illustrate the point, the photo here shows the bit of sacrifice pasture I use to let the flock out of their coop and into the woods during the winter months. To the right is untrammeled pasture, just starting to grow up in grasses and clover after a winter of dormancy. To the left is the chicken-scratched and duck-trod-upon ground, which is bare except for some smartweed seedlings (which chickens won’t eat). Even the nearby woods looks pretty picked over after a long winter of poultry action, so it’s no surprise that our girls would prefer to go back to a smaller but fresher salad bar.


And me? I’m relieved to be able to stop wrangling pesky poultry who are feeling their spring oats. The ducks are now laying in the coop and are coming home at night (because they can’t range far in the pasture and don’t have a tempting body of water to bed down in) and the chickens aren’t flying any fences and are laying in the nest box they sleep beside. And that’s the long reason why I stick to rotational pastures even though we have acres of woodland for our poultry to explore. Now let’s see if I can remember why it’s a good idea to shut the girls into a pasture at this time next  year….

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