Trying to decide whether or not to raise free-ranging chickens can be tough. We’ve all heard that chickens benefit from free-ranging, but there are also reasons to keep your chickens confined. The chicken experts at Nutrena have provided us with pros and cons of raising free-range chickens to help you make the choice that is right for you and your birds. After reading, you will have a better idea if you have enough space for free range chickens and some of the reasons your chickens might be happier within their coop and run.
What is Free Range?
Factory farming has tried very hard to change the definition of free range to make them sound healthier, so many folks don’t really understand what it means to have free range birds.
For chickens, free-ranging means that the chickens spend most of their time outdoors in an unfenced area (or very large fenced area), weather permitting.
There isn’t a specified number to how many birds per acre qualifies as free range, which is how a lot of farms get labeled a free-range farm even though the living conditions of their chickens are far below those of real free-range flocks.
So, how much space do free range chickens need? Practical Poultry Tips states that to protect the soil and grass on your land from being turned into just mud and chicken manure, you should have no more than 50 chickens per acre, which is around 800 square feet per bird.
Pros & Cons
Free-ranging flocks aren’t for everyone. Even if you have space and there are no laws against free-range chickens, there are still positives and negatives you should weigh before diving in. Below is a list of pros and cons provided by the chicken experts at Nutrena to help you decide if a free-range farm is right for you and your birds.
Spend Less on Feed: Instead of pecking away at their chicken feed (and your bank account), free-range chickens roam around their space and eat all kind of things, like grass, bugs, and small critters. Your flock will require some feed, but if you supplement their diet by using a layer feed formulated for free-ranging birds, they will get a perfectly balanced diet.
Less Need for Grit: When chickens roam free, they pick up sand, small rocks, and pebbles to help break down their food. This is natural grit so you will not need to pick up a substitute.
Control Insects: Chickens will eat just about any type of bug. When they free range, they get rid of pests that can cause issues for you and your other animals (if you have any).
Pest Control: Did you know that chickens are the closest living relative to the T-rex? It sounds funny, but chickens love “the hunt,” and they will chase away all kinds of pests on your land. Mice, snakes, and other small prey will be a welcome challenge for your chickens.
Active, Healthier Chickens: Normally, when a chicken gets sick, you have to treat the whole flock because they are in close quarters. When free-ranging, you can usually spot a sick chicken early on and separate it from the rest of your birds. Also, all the roaming, scratching, and pecking will keep your girls happy and healthy. Their risk of being overweight is reduced. Plus, happier hens means more farm fresh eggs!
Less Space Required in Your Coop: When chickens are in their coop and run all the time, they require more space to roam and get a bit of exercise. If they free range, they get their exercise all day in your yard. They’ll only require space for roosting and laying eggs.
Easy to Keep Cool: Chickens are prone to heat stroke on hot days. If they are in a coop and run, you will need to build a structure to give them shade, check on them to ensure they aren’t getting too hot, and give them frozen treats to cool them down. Free range chickens will find shade on their own. They know when it’s getting too hot, so they will find a nice spot under a tree, dig a nice little hole to lay in, and stay cool all day. Remember, chickens are smarter than we give them credit for.
Predators: Chickens may be tough, but they are no match for a hawk, fox, or raccoon. In fact, there are many predators that will come after your flock if given the chance. When your chickens are all cooped up, you can protect them with fencing and other predator proofing techniques. However, when they are left to wander, even the friendly neighborhood dog or cat can be a chicken killer.
Rogue Egg Laying: Hunting for eggs is fun on Easter, but not so much when you have to search your yard for hidden farm fresh eggs. It doesn’t seem to matter to the chickens if they are in a nesting box if they can find a nice place to lay eggs outside. If you want to free range chickens, you are going to have to accept that there will be rogue chickens laying eggs in strange places. You can fix that a bit by leaving wooden or plastic eggs in places you would like for your chickens to lay eggs. The chickens’ natural instinct to clutch eggs will kick in and they will lay in those spots more often.
Eating the Garden: Tons of chicken owners give their chicken’s scraps from the garden or leftover produce from the house. Well, your chickens don’t know the difference between your scraps and the fresh tasty food in your garden (or your neighbors garden!). So, if you want to have free range chickens and a healthy garden, chicken proof your flowers and veggies asap!
Messing up Your Landscaping: Chickens love to have dirt baths, scratch up the ground, and make messes. They don’t know the difference between their dirt around the coop from the well-kept landscaping areas, so if you are worried about any area of your yard getting torn to pieces, keep that in mind before letting your chickens explore.
Droppings: Your birds are going to poop when and wherever they need to. Even if they are given a huge space to roam, you are going to step in it from time to time. Plus, you’re going to miss the opportunity to collect all of that manure for compost for your lawn and garden. Sure, the poop will be all over the yard, but maybe not where you want it.
They’ll Hate to be Locked Away: Once the chickens have gotten used to freedom, they will not like being shut up in the coop. There will be times that you will want to keep your flock safe in their coop, like when you go on vacation or away for a weekend. But when you do, the chickens will let you know they are not pleased by making a racket. If noise is an issue with your neighbors, they will not appreciate a newly locked up chicken.
Ingesting Harmful Pests and Chemicals: While free-ranging, your chickens won’t always eat things that are good for them. Keep in mind that they are free to pick up any kind of pest or poison, and even if that doesn’t harm your birds, you don’t want it in your eggs. Everything your chickens eat can be put right into the eggs your family eats, so think about that before letting them forage in certain areas.
#ChickDays – All the Chicken Facts
I hope that this list helps you make the right decision for you and your flock. Chickens can be healthy, happy birds inside and outside of a coop. Let me know what your chickens’ home life is like in the comment section below!
For more chicken tips and fun facts, take a look at our Chick Days blog category.
If you have any chicken questions or would like to read about a certain chicken subject, let us know!
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