The Trouble with Free Range Chickens

The Problem with Free Range ChickensShould your chickens be free range chickens?

That’s not an easy question.

When embarking on a homesteading or farming path, many people have romantic ideas about how they will do things differently. This is especially true if you have moralistic goals tied up in your endeavors, like the ethical treatment of animals or the heirloom quality of your vegetables.

I had some of these ideas, too. I would have free range chickens! I would never dock a sheep’s tail! I would let my pigs forage on pasture!

It turns sometimes it’s a bit more complicated.

It’s not always just that the evil capitalist farmer really likes docking tails (for example). Some breeds of sheep need docked tails or their tails become caked in shit and then they have a maggot problem. Ew. As a homesteader starting out you may not get to choose the breeds available to you. If you end up having to dock, it doesn’t make you an asshole; it makes you a good caretaker of these animals.

My efforts to at least partially feed our pigs pasture have been a multi-year experiment in failure, a story for another day perhaps.

The issue of free range chickens is one that we’ve gone back and forth on here at The Wallow. Sure, you can free range your chickens, as we currently are. But there are definitive pros-and-cons compared to cooping.

This post at The Free Range Life covers a lot of the concerns. Pros to free ranging include saving money on feed, fewer bugs in your yard, and more nutrient dense eggs. Cons include chicken shit everywhere, not being able to find the eggs, and predators.

I love seeing chickens running all over our property, and I love that they are roosting up in the trees at night. But losing them to hawks (and whatnot) is starting to get to me. I’d love to see a livestock guardian dog in our future somewhere, but we’re not ready for that, yet.

Our latest flock configuration sticks pretty close to the house, which means the shit on the front porch has increased. It used to only get bad on rainy days when the chickens would take shelter there. It seems like these chickens are always on the porch. We could screen it in maybe, but that would be a pretty big job. I do miss having a porch not covered in chicken shit.

And I’m tired of not having any eggs! It seems silly to have as many chickens as we do and still be buying eggs from the store. Come spring time, it might be time to reconsider a coop for the chickens.

Another idea proposed at The Free Range Life post is yarding instead of cooping. I could see us maybe doing something like that, too, where the chickens are not cooped but have a larger, yet more protected area to hang out in. That’s similar to the balance we’ve found with our sheep.

Managing livestock is never “finished”. There are always additional concerns and considerations, things you can try, and ways you can improve. Our chicken situation feels particularly unfinished right now, so changes are probably in the works.

What has been your experience with chickens? Do you coop yours? Use a tractor? Free range?

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  1. MizTrish says

    I had 12 chickens in 2012 and we created a sort of yard that wasn’t escape proof, more of a “guideline” for the ladies. It worked on everyone except the Americanna’s and I found the hide outs for the eggs pretty often in time with those two. The rest would do pretty well with laying in the coop and staying in the large yard. I built the yard fence out of pallets and they would often roost on top of it, but didn’t stray too often outside the area. (I think because they were scared of hawks too.)

    At our urban farm we have about 20 chickens, and its in a large run, smaller than the yard I had at my house but much taller so its pretty much escape proof unless the shade cloth drops a bit and someone gets to perching too high and curious. The ones that escape wait outside the gate for us to open it and let her back in. They seem happy with the size. We can’t let them free range in the city anyway. We give them some activities and things too, like a rack with twine and clips hanging from it, and we hang greens or something from it. Its a fun activity for the kids and interns, and the ladies love it. They also get lots of weedy soil to dig through and thirds from the farm to eat.

    I would say yards are a happy medium that keeps the chickens and the people happy and is pretty much the only way anyone in city can have chickens.

    I have been debating on what to do at my new house as we are closer to a busy road. I want to let them run around, but with all the predators and the road, I don’t know.

    • says

      A pallet structure sounds neat. I doubt that would be enough to keep ours in since they are used to freedom and jumping up into trees. I love things built out of pallets, though! I’ve been thinking about this, and I don’t know where we would put our chicken yard. I like seeing them so much! I would really want it to be close to the house. But the coop we already have is out behind the barn, and it would make sense to utilize it. I’m so torn!

  2. Karen W. says

    I have 10 laying hens, I had to have a 14′ x 35′ covered run built that is attached to their 5′ x 16′ coop. I used to let the girls totally free range, but had several “losses” due to hawks, coyotes, foxes & dogs, I now let them out into their run until afternoon, then I let them out in our yard to do their “chicken stuff”, BUT, I am outside with them to watch & protect them.

    • says

      I have a friend who does similarly with her chickens – they are normally in a run, but she lets them out while she is gardening in the yard so they have a babysitter. That seems like a really good compromise.

  3. Teresa says

    Thank you for the information. We’ve been debating over keeping our chickens confined to the coop/run or to let them go free in the yard. However, we have so many issues with coyotes, hawks, owls, and so many more preditors! While we were out of town on one of our trips, we lost 11 of our chickens in one day…some thought it might be a badger, or a raccoon, coyote, whatever….it was so devastating!!! We ended up losing 28 of our chickens before we got back…..(their run is (or so we thought, at the time) secure). So, now…they’re only out when we’re there.
    Luckily, we’ll be moving to the new house we built, very soon! So, maybe, as Karen W said…I’m going to have to be right there to protect them…they count on us to keep them safe!

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