Saturday, August 31, 2013

The pros and cons of free-range

We are very fortunate to have, in the place where we currently live, a space around our house which enables us to give a completely free range to our chickens, and also to keep roosters without anyone being bothered by their crowing (though in my eyes, the crow of a rooster is actually soothing – quite unlike the honking of cars).

The advantages of free range are numerous; first of all, we save on feed costs, because chickens have truly free access to every corner of the yard, and find part of their own food – bugs and weeds. This gives us more nutritious eggs and also provides free pest control, and some weed control. We do, of course, also give them layers' grain (we buy a large sack which lasts us for several months) and whatever kitchen and table scraps we have.

Free-range also means less time chickens spend in the coop – and thus, a less smelly coop which attracts less flies, and doesn't need to be cleaned quite so often. In addition, it is very entertaining to see chickens get into every nook and cranny of the yard. If you want to grow vegetables and free-range your chickens, of course you'll need to fence the vegetable garden in, because chickens will eat mostly everything (we currently don't grow anything but herbs, which the chickens don't fancy).

The most obvious disadvantage to free ranging, of course, is in exposure of chickens to predators. We have had problems with foxes before – they operate during the night, very slyly, but lately we had chicks disappear during the day without a trace, which made me suspect birds of prey (we have several kinds in our area). We can fox-proof a coop so that chickens are safe at night, but we can't give true protection against birds of prey, as long as we let our chickens free-range.

Still, as much as I hate to lose birds, taking everything into account I believe free-ranging is the best option, overall. Keeping chickens always fenced in, even if we could provide a large coop and mesh-covered run, would mean greatly increased food costs, the loss of pest control we currently enjoy, and having to muck them out far more frequently. I will go as far as saying that if we couldn't free-range, perhaps keeping chickens wouldn't even be practical for us – no more than 3-4 birds, anyway (we currently have about 30, including chicks). Obviously we wouldn't free-range if we were so plagued by predators as to lose all our flock; but occassional losses are something I have learned to mentally steel myself against.

What methods do you chicken-keepers use? Do you free-range your flock? 


sara said...

My seven chickens are in a large fenced-in yard with grass and weeds and small trees. At night they are locked into a coop. I keep them fenced because they had begun to wander closer and closer to the road and because I don't like hunting for eggs and also to give them some protection from predators.

Sandy@American Way Farm said...

We also have goats so we use livestock guardian dogs to protect them. That has the added benefit of protecting the chickens. They don't let anything come onto our property that doesn't belong here, including from the air. We have a 4' perimeter fence and anything inside the fencing where the dogs are is protected. Sometimes the chickens stray beyond the fence, but not too far. They seem to know where the protection is. When they get spooked they hightail it for inside the fence!

Gothelittle Rose said...

When we keep chickens, we let them free-range and just accept periodic losses. They keep the weeds and ticks under control. I have four acres of rich North American forest, and when we have at least five chickens in the coop, we could go an entire year and never find a single tick on any of the kids or pets.

Preoteasa Alexandra said...

We started free ranging from the same reasons. Lower costs, better smell in the chicken quarter, better food for them and us. We didn't lose any till now with very few exceptions, we had little ones and 1 or 2 disappeared. The only problem is the dirt they leave on our paths and this can be avoided by either separating the yard in halves or keeping the flock naturally in other part of the yard by offering delicious food there. This is still a problem for us because the flock follows us whenever they see us looking for goodies.

becky said...

We did free range our girls for awhile and they completely destroyed our lawn. so back in their coop and run they went. It's a trade off-either a yard of some sorts or free range. Personal choice for each of us.

Anonymous said...

we free ranged for several years successfully and had about 30 also , plus 3 free range bunnies and a dozen ducks , then within a few days somethingS got everything but a few chickens, day night didn't seem to matter even in their pen where we put them when we realized what was happening.I should have taken it very seriously the first day. But if I did keep them again I would start out with the idea of free range it worked for 7 or 8 years .and now I have a cage to trap predators in which I should have had the first time it happened.