Should chickens free range?

It's a debate that sparks heated arguments: should you allow your chickens to free range or not? On one hand you have the chickens who absolutely love to be outdoors playing in the grass and chasing bugs. On the other side, we all want the best for their safety and chickens have a lot of predators out there. So what do you do? Do you free range your chickens and take the risk? Or do you keep your flock cooped up and play it safe?

Over the years I have done both. I've kept my chickens inside their coop and covered run all day and I've let them out with unlimited free range time. Whether I let my chickens free range or not depends on the  current situation. Anytime I feel there is a threat of predator attack I keep them in. I've also done supervised free range which isn't as simple as it sounds.

free range chickens

Free range chickens


The idea behind supervised free range hens is that you would obviously be right there watching them. This works in theory but it also depends on how many chickens you have and how well equipped you are to handle predators.

Chances are a predator would stay away if they saw you out there with your chickens. Probably. Unless it's the neighbors dog or a stray cat, then they would more then likely be unfazed by you. I've also had wild predators attack when I was less then 50 feet away. A bear grabbed a chicken when I was in the yard and a fox snagged a duck in the 30 seconds I walked into the house to grab a flashlight.

I am ill equipped to handle either of those predators (although the fox is no longer with us) and the speed with which they struck left little time for reaction. So, even supervised free range isn't a guarantee of safety. Basically, you're taking your chances by free ranging and only you can decide whether the stakes are too high to allow your chickens to free range.

There are definite benefits of free ranging. Besides the chickens getting to play outside which we know they love to do! Here are some of the things to consider about allowing your chickens to free range: 

When the flock is free range:

Lower feed costs
More exercise
Lots to do all day, running in grass and hunting for bugs
Losses from predators
Poop all over your yard/pasture
Higher quality eggs. Eggs from free range hens are more nutritious.
Insect control for your yard

When the flock is cooped up:


Higher feed costs
No exercise
Nothing to do. Boredom in chickens can result in feather pulling or picking on each other.
Less problems with predators
Poop is contained to coop

Some of the things you can do to provide better protection when allowing your chickens to free range: 

Provide cover: Trees, bushes or other things the chickens can scurry under to hide will help protect them from aerial attack by a hawk or other bird of prey. Be careful not to have any hiding places though. A fox or raccoon can easily hide in tall grasses or behind piles of debris. (yes, I know they can hide in the bushes too, it's a catch 22 isn't it?)

A protector: While a rooster is usually great at alerting the flock of danger he falls woefully short when it comes to actually defending the flock from a predator. A livestock guard dog though will chase off a predator with a few sharp barks. Make sure the dog you choose can be trusted around chickens and is free to roam where they do. A dog on a leash isn't very much help at all.

Human interaction: Just because you can't see the chicken predators doesn't mean they're not out there. They often lurk in the shadows waiting for the perfect moment to strike. They may stay away if they see you though. Go outside and visit the chickens often. Walk around, make some noise and hopefully scare off anything looking for a free meal!  

Guineas: Guineas are a built in alarm system. They will "go off" whenever anything they're not familiar with is nearby. In fact, they're the very reason why I was walking around looking for what was wrong when the bear attacked. They alerted and I started looking. I realized I couldn't find one of the d'Uccles and was looking her by that coop when the bear had already moved on to the silkies. Luckily she had been hiding somewhere. Not so lucky for the silkie roo.

In the end it all comes down to your personal decision. Over the many years that I've free ranged my chickens I've had very few losses. I have had losses though. I've also enjoyed less of a tick problem then my neighbors have, a good amount of entertainment and very happy chickens. It's definitely a personal decision and one that shouldn't be made lightly.

~L

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10 comments:

  1. We started out by letting our chickens roam around, but were just losing too many to predators. :/ Although more expensive than we were hoping, we went with the next best thing and have a generous sized fenced in yard for them. We're actually getting ready to expand it even more soon. I have to admit, though, while I would rather be able to let them free range, I am glad I don't have to deal with poop everywhere now!

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    1. The poop gets everywhere, doesn't it??? That's great that you fenced a yard for them! I'm sure they love it!

      Lisa

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  2. Hi Lisa,
    I don't have chickens myself but some of my neighbors do. My neighbor next door just got some - probably about a dozen and he has a pen for them but lets them out regularly but stays near outside in his yard and makes sure they don't come over to our property on get in trouble one way or the other. He is retired so he has the time to do that and I some times set & watch them run around. Congratulations on being featured on Homestead blog hop. Pinned & tweeted. Have a healthy, happy & blessed day!

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  3. Hi Marla!
    Thanks, I am so excited to be featured! Aren't chickens fun to watch? My guineas go and visit my neighbors quite a bit. They also watch the guineas antics and as a bonus the guineas eat bugs while they're over there!

    Thanks for stopping by!

    Lisa

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  4. We bought an old farmhouse on an acre a little over a year ago that had been sitting empty for a number of years. The previous owner had bred and raised pitbulls so we had four huge built in pen areas and the yard itself is surrounded by predator proof fencing about five foot high, buried at least 2 feet all around, with barbed wire along the tops. The pens were similar. One being a double pen, double fenced and covered with a roof. The other two were smaller but still just as secure. In order to keep the dogs in and not getting out. I swore when we moved in that dogs would never be bred here again. We've always been a rescue family.

    However, last summer I decided to turn the big double area into a chicken playground and coop. Knocking on wood but I feel they are fairly well secure in there but am thinking of letting them free range the yard this spring. Our dogs (bulldog and shih tzu) are protective and know the hens are family as do our two cats. I'm fairly confident our fur/feathered family would be fine outdoors roaming the acre. Except there are hawks about.

    Sully (our Sultan rooster) is pretty good at alerting us to any hawks or any dangers. I want to say the hawks aren't big enough but have seen them swoop down and get chipmunks, squirrels and mice. I was looking at Chicken aprons - mainly to dress up our hens as we humiliate all of our pets with clothes from time to time. I found aprons that had two big owl eyes on the back of them. The lady who makes them says these discourage birds of prey from swooping up our free ranging chickens. Sounds like that may work and I've ordered a few.

    Haven't let them free range yet, but they do have a huge area to run in the double pen. I may try in the spring - by letting them venture out an hour or two before roost time supervised. With their little aprons on of course.

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    1. I've never seen chicken saddles with eyes on them, that sounds like an interesting solution. I hope it works for you! We live in the woods and don't have too much problem with hawks, especially with the standard sized chickens. They prefer the bantam chickens since they're small enough to pick up and fly away with. It sounds like you have a very secured area and with your rooster and dogs your chickens should be safe from predators when they free range. I've had good experience with deer netting over free range areas. The hawks get stuck in it if they try to fly through it, but usually they just stay away. Good luck to your flock!

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  5. Soooo..."I am ill equipped to handle either of those predators (although the fox is no longer with us)"
    How is that, exactly? I have a fox, and while it's beautiful it has to GO. I have it on my game camera and it just came and sat down in my yard one night. I said awwww and immediately felt bad because it just can't be here after taking a hen one day.

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    1. Ya know I never thought I would have a problem scaring away a bear, till I saw him up close and realised just how big it was. The most I could do was fire a warning shot into the ground. As for the fox we did eventually take care of him, but when they strike they are fast and can be vicious. It's just not the kind of critter you want to tangle with. Now I've run right up to vultures, hawks & raccoons, threw a box over an opossum & caught a snake with my bare hands but a fox or bear I just don't want to mess with!

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  6. Raising Great Pyrenees dogs with your chickens is a guaranteed protection as they view them as their pack and will not attack the chickens.

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    1. That is a great idea! I have a boxer/Australian Shepherd mix livestock dog and she protects the flock very well.

      Lisa

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