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?