Bringing home new baby chicks feels a lot like bringing home a human baby. As you leave the hatchery (or hospital, in the case of a human baby), you have the distinct feeling of… “They’re letting ME take this home? Am I responsible enough for this?” We’ve all felt this way at one time or another, haven’t we? When you think about free-ranging, you probably have a lot questions, and those old feelings of “Am I responsible enough for this?” come rushing back.
On our flower farm, we use chickens to our advantage. Of course, fresh eggs are always nice, but as a flower farmer, there are many benefits the chickens offer to the plants, as well! If you’ve ever considered free-ranging chickens, learn about the advantages and disadvantages of free-range chickens and answers to some frequently asked questions below!
The advantages of free-range chickens
If you free-range your chickens, you will not have to spend as much money on feed during the warmer months. I’m not an expert on this, but I also believe the egg quality increases. I notice a difference between the summer and winter eggs in the colour of their yolks. I also notice these differences in winter if I supplement their feed with scraps from the house or if I make them sprouts or things like that.
There are three main advantages we’ve found when free-ranging our chickens:
1. They keep the bug population down
Chickens love to eat bugs. In the spring, the first main bug that they eat is the ticks. While they don’t get every tick on the property, we do notice that we do not get ticks when we walk around the house and garden where the chickens generally free range. Later in the season as the flowers and farm continue to grow, the chickens continue to keep the bug population down. I do notice that my plants have less bug damage than flower farmers who don’t have free-ranging chickens. While they don’t get rid of thrips or lygus bugs, I do think they help. And, although they don’t get rid of every grasshopper, they do help keep the population much lower.
2. We don’t have to mow our lawn as much
This is especially nice because living on an acreage means much more grass!
3. The bedding from the coop is slowly improving our garden soil
Our chicken bedding is made of a combination of straw, wood chips, and manure, all of which are good for plants. It’s best to let the bedding sit for a full year if at all possible before using it, but this year, I used pre-mature bedding in my pumpkin patch and have noticed a huge difference in the quality of the soil. The soil in my pumpkin patch is pretty bad, but before planting, I put manure in each hole and then I put fairly well-rotted chicken bedding in my garden early in the season. Unfortunately, I could only fill about half of the holes, but a few weeks later you could see a big difference in the pumpkins that got the chicken manure versus those that did not receive it.
Related: Best Setup for Newborn Chicks
The disadvantages of free-range chickens
Free-range chickens can be brats. They love to destroy flowers, especially lilies, cress, and frosted explosion grass (or any grass with some seed on it). If you have either of these crops in an area where the chickens frequent, they will be destroyed.
If you don’t keep your free-range chickens inside their coop until everyone is finished laying their eggs for the day, you will be playing the world’s most not-fun Easter egg hunt all summer long. You will hear egg songs and desperately search in those areas for eggs, not coming up with anything, only to find a clutch with 25+ eggs in it weeks later.
Lastly, if you free range, be prepared to lose a few chickens yearly. While we do our best never to let our chickens out unless we are home for the day, we’re not perfect. Generally, we rarely lose a chicken by only letting the chickens out after 9:00 a.m. and then back into their coop before the darkness falls for the night. But you still may lose chickens from time to time and different areas will have different levels of predators. Foxes, weasels, and hawks are common in my area. For us, the foxes are the biggest predators but in some areas, the predator pressure is so bad that you cannot free range at all. Even some dogs will eat chickens!
P.S. For the uninitiated, you will know a chicken has died when you see a little pile of feathers and nothing else.
Frequently Asked Questions About Free-Ranging Chickens
Can chickens survive on just free-range?
Possibly, but it’s a good idea always to have food and water in their coop. Having water available outdoors for them to enjoy during the day is also ideal.
What do free-range chickens do in the winter?
There is no such thing as a free-range chicken in the winter, at least if you’re someplace with snow. Chickens do not like snow. Ideally, you would provide a run completely covered from snow so they can access dirt. This helps keep mites away and helps them have their dust baths to stay clean.
Side note: Once the snow begins to melt and you can see the ground, I will let my chickens out for just a couple of hours in the middle of the day to access the new ground. There will be a post about this coming soon!
How often should I feed free-range chickens?
I like to give my free-range chickens food scraps in the evening to encourage them to return to their coop and ensure they always have food and water to them throughout the day.
Do free-range chickens need grass?
It isn’t impossible to free-range chickens without grass, but it is hugely beneficial for them to graze on.
How do I start letting my chickens free range?
I don’t let my chickens free range until they’re past six weeks old. Chickens are still pretty dumb at this age though and I find that when I let them go for the first time, one or two get eaten almost immediately because they haven’t learned to return. At week four, if the weather is nice, I like to open the run so they can be out for some part of the day. It’s a protected area where they can’t get lost. It’s best to give them everything in stages, and even at six weeks old, I only let them come out for a little bit of time at a time.
P.S. It’s hardest the very first time you have chicks because you don’t have older chickens to show them what to do. I think this is why I lost so many chickens the first time I did this. Now that I have a rooster to guide the hens, things have gone much more smoothly.
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