One thing you must decide when you have chickens is whether free ranging is for you. Almost everyone likes the idea of free range chickens. You picture happy chickens pecking around in the yard or field, just doing what chickens do best. It’s a pretty picture. But then there is reality…
Free range chickens eat your gardens. Free range chickens dig holes in your yard. Free range chickens poop everywhere. Free range chickens might decide to hide their eggs. But even if you can handle all those things, there is one other thing to consider. Free range chickens can be easy targets for predators. There is a constant balancing act with chickens – every decision seems to come up against the need to keep your flock safe. For you the benefits might outweigh the risks. Free range chickens have a more varied and natural diet and eat less processed feed, which also saves you money. Free range chickens get more exercise. Free range chickens don’t get bored and pick on one another or eat their own eggs. If your chickens free range, your coop doesn’t need to be as big and will cost less to build. But letting them free range is a risk. You need to determine what predators might be a factor where you live and then decide what level of risk works for you.
My own decision about free ranging has flip-flopped several times over the past year. At first I was overprotective. I would let my chicks out for an hour or so every day, but I would hover right over them, watching the sky for hawks and the tree line for dogs. More than once when they were small I saw a hawk fly over and I’d quickly scoop up chicks and run back to the coop. But then, due to some family illness issues, I was away from home almost every day for several months and all the chicken duties fell on Mr. Fix It and J-Bear. They weren’t nearly as careful as I’d been. They would let the young chickens out while they worked around in the yard and let them stay out all evening until they went back to the coop at dusk. When I found out what had been going on, I was a little upset. But then I realized that in all those months, nothing bad had happened to my chickens. I loosened up and started following the boys’ lead. Just when I was feeling safe and not the least bit worried about them free ranging, we lost our first chicken.
For several months I tightened up the reins again, only allowing them out when I could be outside watching. By this time we had a new, bigger coop under construction and a whole new flock of little chicks in the garage brooder. The chicks were growing faster than expected and the coop construction was going slower than expected. After much discussion, we decided that the chicks should move into the old smaller coop and the big chickens should move into the unfinished coop. It was all enclosed but there was no run yet. We would let the big chickens free range during the day. Just when the run fence was almost done, we lost another chicken. We jumped in and finished the fence the very next day. But it was too late to save that chicken.
So for now my chickens are cooped up chickens. Even though I feel safer – I can still see the benefits of free ranging – and I’m thinking of letting them out again. I have some young roosters now, and I think that once they are big enough to defend the hens we will try again. Wish me luck! I don’t like losing chickens!
And I wish you luck as you make your own decisions about free ranging. Let me know what you decide and how it turns out for you.