Sep 13, 2016

Why We Don't Have Free Range Chickens

Last weekend, we put the chicks outside, in the hen house. Thank goodness! Chicks are cute and not much trouble when they are little fluff balls; but as they start growing feathers, if they stay inside in the brooder, they become noisy and very, very smelly. We've thought a lot about how best to keep our new hens. We have land now; should we let them free range?* Or should we keep them in a run, as we did with our chickens in the suburbs?

To be honest, it wasn't much of a debate. There's no way we're free ranging our chickens.


First, Why Would You Want to Free Range Chickens?

There are three main reasons to free range hens: 1) It can save money (because the hens don't need as much commercial chicken feed). 2) It cuts back on bugs you may not want in your yard (in addition to some you may find desirable). 3) And their eggs taste better and are healthier for you to eat. In fact, eggs from free range hens have:
  • 2/3 more vitamin A
  • 1/3 less cholesterol
  • 1/4 less saturated fat
  • Two times more omega-3 fatty acids
  • Three times more vitamin E
  • Seven times more beta carotene
  • 4 to 6 times as much vitamin D

Courtesy of Svklimkin and Wikimedia Commons.
Why We Don't Free Range Our Hens

Let me count the reasons...

* Free range chickens get into and destroy everything! That includes the vegetable garden, the flower garden, the trees (chickens scratch at their base, which could kill trees, especially young ones), etc. They also scratch up the grass and can turn it to dust.

* Free ranging chickens are much more vulnerable to predators, particularly hawks and other predatory birds.

* Free range hens may not lay eggs where you can find them. Instead of using the nesting boxes in the hen house, they tend to lay their eggs in bushes where they will end up either rotting or being eaten by other animals.

* Free range hens are difficult to control. They may not come home to the hen house at the end of the day. Instead, they might roost in trees, making them vulnerable to predators. And you can't control where they scratch around, either.

* Did I mention that free range chickens destroy everything???




Solutions to the Free Ranging Dilemma

If you don't want your hens tearing everything up, eating your garden-fresh food, and turning the lawn to desert, all is not lost. There are several ways to get the benefits of free ranging without letting your chickens totally take over your yard.

Simple chicken tractor. (Courtesy of wisemandarine and Wikimedia Commons.)
1. Use a chicken tractor - basically a small, moveable chicken run. The idea is to move the tractor every day or so; the hens benefit from scratching around in that confined area, but they aren't in one location long enough to do permanent damage. In fact, hens in this setting can help you, by eating bugs, mowing the grass, and leaving behind a little bit of fertilizer. Using a tractor, you can even release them into your vegetable garden and have them till the land a bit, remove undesirable bugs and plant debris, and fertilize a little. The downside to this arrangement is that tractors really only work on flat, level ground. Plus, they can be difficult to move unless they are quite small. In addition, it can be tough to get hens in and out of the tractor. Also, hens in a tractor are more available to predators who dig than they would be in a well built, permanent run. (Though this is less of a problem in the suburbs than in a rural location).

2. Supervised free ranging. We did this for years when we lived in the suburbs. Basically, I'd let the hens out of their run when I was in the backyard doing other things. This way, I could keep them out of the garden and in our yard (not the neighbors'). Read here about how we controlled and trained the hens using sprays of water and a toy garden hoe. The downside here is that you have to pay attention to the hens, and it may take time to get them used to being herded back into their run or hen house.

3. Make the run huge. This is how we're handling our current flock, and it works best if you have a little land (although I've seen it plenty of times in the suburbs). You simply make the chicken run quite large for the number of birds you have. Better yet, you design things so you can change the location of the run; for example, in the spring, the run might be in front of the hen house, but in the summer, you move it to the back of the hen house; in the fall, it's on the right hand side of the hen house; and in the winter, it's on the left hand side. This keeps the hens from turning their run into nothing but dirt, and makes it possible to keep the chickens in fresh forage. The downside is that it takes some skill to build such a run and hen house, and it requires more space, too.

If none of these things work for you, you can still improve your hens eggs!

The trick is to provide them with plenty of forage. You can do this by giving them yard clippings such as grass, the weeds you pull from the garden, less than ideal veggies from your garden, and table scraps (meat and vegetables...and yes, cooked eggs, too). You might even try wetting a small area of your yard and covering it with cardboard for a time; worms and other bugs will flock to the area - and once you remove the cardboard, you can let your hens have at them!



* Never imagine that "free range" eggs you buy at the store come from hens who have a large yard to scratch in. In fact, they have extremely limited access - perhaps one small door to get outside, among a flock of hundreds - to a tiny (often hen sized) plot of dirt.

** Title image courtesy of sasastro.




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