Is it better to free range your backyard chickens, or keep them secure in a coop or cage? When we first started raising our poultry twelve years ago, it was free range all the way. We discovered there are both benefits and drawbacks to that, so here’s the rundown in case you are on the fence about your birds.
Free Range Chickens – The Advantages
Less Feed: One of the most obvious advantages to letting your birds range is a free supply of bugs. That means you’ll spend less on poultry food. The dirt and sand they pick up from the ground will also eliminate the need for you to supplement their diet with grit.
Pest Control: The more bugs your birds eat, the less you’ll see them on your property. I loved that chickens gobbled up all sorts of unwelcome species like wasps, flies, stinkbugs and beetles. Chickens will also chase and kill mice and small snakes!
It’s Healthy: It’s not only amusing to watch your fat and fluffy hens pecking, scratching and chasing grasshoppers; it’s good exercise for them! Free and open spaces give chickens the chance to do all the things that come naturally to them, resulting in happy, healthy birds.
More Interaction: Chickens that are running around your yard are going to result in a lot more entertainment for your family, as opposed to caged birds. One of the best parts of our day was sitting on a bench in the backyard and hand feeding our hens and roosters. Many of them were quite tame, and let the children hold and pet them with no problem.
And yes, all the birds had names. 🙂
Less Pecking: The longer that chickens are confined together, the greater your chance of seeing harmful behaviors like pecking and fighting. And when I say harmful, I’m dead serious, because once a hen gets pecked it quickly starts a downward spiral, where the whole flock seems to turn on her. A chicken can be literally pecked to death, so this is definitely a behavior you want to discourage at all costs. Room to run and lots of distractions go a long way in minimizing this ugly problem.
Free Range Chickens – The Cons
Lost Eggs: Every once in a while our children would discover a hidden cache of eggs somewhere in the yard or an outbuilding. The largest stash we found had twenty eggs in it! Free range hens often shun the nest box and opt for a quiet little hiding place, especially if they are the broody type, so you’ll have to be extra vigilant to avoid egg loss. Pay attention when the girls start sneaking off. You can usually catch them heading for their spot first thing in the morning, or you can keep an eye out when the sun is setting because they will all start appearing and heading for the roost.
Lots of Mess: Free range chickens are messy creatures. We got really tired of sticky, stinky bird droppings all over our patio and deck. They could even hop on small benches and chairs and leave a mess there. Get used to finding feathers here and yon, too.
Lots of Trouble: They get into everything, just like toddlers! One day I found our bewildered kittens huddling in a corner as a bunch of greedy hens gobbled up their cat food. After that day, there was no way to feed the kitties without a swarm of hungry chickens nearby. I had to rig a feeding place up high that only the cats could access.
Don’t plan a picnic with free range birds, either, because they will quickly become a nuisance, pecking food off your children’s plates and leaving their droppings all around the tables and chairs.
But what really cooked my grits was the destruction of my flowers. One year I set aside a few precious hours to put in a beautiful bed of purple petunias and red salvia; the next morning I awoke to find “the girls” making short work of it. With those sharp little beaks and toes, they decimated pretty much everything. Ever since then, it’s been a huge battle trying to keep them out of any cultivated spaces in our yard.
More Danger: Some predators are bold enough to prey on your birds in the broad daylight. I saw a coyote just outside my kitchen window, prowling after a hen. Last year, I heard the chickens squawking and discovered a huge hawk circling low right over their heads. Yet another time we had two rogue dogs invade our yard in search of a chicken dinner. Pretty much everyone I know who free ranges their poultry loses birds from time to time. It’s just a given.
Maybe you’re thinking but we don’t have predators in our area. Let me assure you that there’s something magical about poultry. Just ask Kevin Costner. If you build it (a chicken yard), they will come (predators). It’s kind of like squash bugs. They seem to appear out of nowhere, don’t they? It’s like they are saying hey thanks for planting our favorite vegetable. Trust me: chickens are a veritable magnet for predators. And chickens who are running free in your yard are like flashing neon signs!
Remember the egg hiding I mentioned above? That’s yet another flashing neon sign for predators to pay a visit. Your hen sneaks off, away from the protection of the flock and the roosters, lays a nice big tasty egg and then starts cackling loudly to announce it!
No Fertilizer: If you were planning to use chicken manure as fertilizer, you’ll be out luck; they will spread that lovely nitrogen and phosphorus randomly across your property. When birds are cooped or cage, it’s easy to scoop up their bedding (litter) and compost it for later use in the garden.
I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences when it comes to free ranging chickens!