How to Raise Free Range Chickens
The Pros and Cons of Raising Free Range Chickens
Reading Time: 8 minutes
In the discussion of raising chickens, there have been two traditional schools of thought. The first is total free range. Usually, an evening feeding of grain or other treat is used to lure the flock back to the chicken coop for roosting. The other school of thought has been confinement to a secure chicken run and coop. The nutritional needs of these backyard chickens being met with feed. In recent years, I’ve seen a developing trend that lands somewhere between these two schools of thought. With more and more flocks of backyard chickens cropping up in various environments, there is a trend toward confinement in chicken pens and runs with some free ranging. I’ve heard this called supervised free ranging.
Of course, the first question to answer how to raise free-range chickens is, what does free range chicken mean? I believe there are two definitions of free-range chickens.
The first applies to the world of commercial chicken raising. The USDA sets the standards for a chicken to be sold as free range. They say the chickens must be allowed access to some outdoor space. I know the words free range evoke images of chickens scratching through the grass of an open field, but this is just not the case in the commercial world. If the chickens only have access to a gravel yard, or just spend a few minutes with their doors open, they can be called free range birds.
To any anyone homesteading today or backyard chicken keeper, this term has a whole different meaning. To us, it means our flock is allowed to be outside of a confined area for all or part of the day. It may be within a fenced pasture, in your backyard, or out in the open fields. But the flock is allowed to move around in nature at will.
I was born and raised on a farm, and I’ve had my own flock for more than 30 years. When I say my birds are free ranged I mean they are allowed free access to the great outdoors. They have a large chicken yard to roam around in before I open the gates for free ranging. I feed my chickens once a day. They are allowed to come and go as they please from their chicken yard most of the day.
If it’s breeding time for the hawks, I feed the flock in the morning and let them out a little later. They’re allowed to roam until they put themselves up to roost at night. From late fall through winter, I let them out in the morning and feed them around 5 PM to put them back in their yard. I do this because of the chicken predators roaming the farm during these hours of the winter. As with everything, it’s relative to where you live, how you live, and what you want for your flock.
Free ranging your chickens in the winter is a little different, especially if you live in an area with a lot of snow. Chickens will stay close to the coop and will not scratch through deep snow for food. We don’t get much, if any, snow so my flock has the opportunity to free range most all the winter. Except on the worst of days, I open the gates and let them do as they please.
When the winter weather keeps your flock confined to a chicken pen and run, keeping your chickens entertained makes things easier on them. Many people who have backyard chickens as a hobby, have chicken swings for them, some tie special toys in their coops or runs and others offer them special treats. Now, I’m an old fashioned sustenance farmer and don’t go in for those things. I offer them special things like hot oatmeal, baked squash, or pumpkins when it’s really cold. I put bales of hay in their yard to give them something to scratch through, that’s about it.
Chickens are equipped to handle some cold weather and even some snow and ice, but they are susceptible to frost bite, especially on their cones and wattles. Providing them a snow free area to scratch around in is appreciated, I’m sure.
There’s always the question, Do chickens need heat in the winter? As you know, I’m not for forcing anyone to think like me (that would be scary), or to do things my way. As my grandfather taught me, “There’s as many ways of gettin’ a farm job done as there’s farmers. Ya gotta be willing to listen, help, and learn from ’em, even if it’s just to see what not to do.”
That being said, if it’s below 25 degrees F at night, we turn on a heat lamp. It’s secured to the 2”x4” by the coop door and up out of their reach. We’ve never had any problem. Our coop is well ventilated so there is no risk of moisture build-up leading to frost bite. There is an exception. If our flock is 40 birds or over, we don’t use it at all. This number of birds in our 7’x12′ coop is enough to keep them all warm with their body heat. We add extra hay to the laying nests and under the roost for the winter.
Pros of Free Ranging Your Flock
- A natural, high-protein diet. This helps make for gorgeous golden yolks, egg production and longevity of life. When a chicken free ranges, about 70% of what they will consume will be protein.
- The drive to scratch, peck, and hunt is met. This keeps them occupied and entertained.
- Saves money. Less grain is required to feed them.
- Variety of diet ensuring all nutritional needs are met.
- They’ll make their own dust bath areas. Lice, mites, and feather problems will be a problem if the flock isn’t allowed to dust.
- You won’t have to put out grit. They find their own.
- They maintain a healthy weight while being physically fit.
- Better tasting eggs.
- They eat all the bugs and spiders from your yard and around your home.
- They’ll till your garden beds for you.
- You’ll have happy chickens. Mine run to the fence and talk to each other about getting out.
- Put fertilizer (chicken poop) out for you – everywhere.
- Chickens have a strict pecking order. If you keep your flock confined, some hens may not get enough food or water. Offering multiple feed and water stations will help, but won’t guarantee each hen gets enough.
- You won’t have to worry about ensuring enough room for each bird. If they’re too crowded, you’ll have problems with picking and their health.
Cons of Free Ranging Your Flock
Interestingly enough, some of the Cons are directly related to the Pros.
- They till your gardens. Even the ones you don’t want them in. You have to have a way to keep them out.
- They leave chicken poop everywhere they go.
- They’re at risk for being taken by a chicken predator.
- They’ll eat just about everything, including your favorite flowers.
- Unless you’ve trained them to lay in their nests, they won’t go back to lay.
- If you live close to a neighbor, the chickens may find their way to that yard and become annoying to your neighbor.
- They’ll scratch up your flower beds to make a dust bath.
- You’ll lose some fertilizer because it won’t be in the yard for you to collect.
- Unless you train them, you may have trouble getting them to come to roost at night.
One thing we can all agree on is the common goal for our flocks. We each want them to be healthy, happy and as safe as possible. We use a stand of trees, poultry wire, hardware wire and bird netting to offer our flock protection when they’re in their yard. When they’re free ranging, the rooster, dogs, and undergrowth offer them protection. In the last year, we’ve only lost two birds to predators. One was to a hawk and the other to snake bite.
How I Teach Them Where to Lay
When I add young pullets to the flock, I leave the flock confined to the yard when they are about to start laying. You know they are about to start laying when their cones and wattles turn bright red, their leg color lightens up, and they will squat when you walk up to them. They do the squatting for the rooster to fertilize the eggs forming.
I also put ceramic eggs in the nests for them to see. I give them a couple of weeks of laying in the nests to ensure they know the routine. Then I free range the flock again, but a little later in the morning for a couple of weeks. This helps reinforce their laying habits. Then it’s back to our normal routine.
How I Trained my Flock to Come When I Want Them
For I don’t know how many years, I have fed the flock from a white bucket. When I take garden or kitchen scraps to them, I take them in the white bucket. From just a few weeks of age, they know the white bucket means food. I do this to teach them to come to me and the yard for the white bucket. If they’re out free ranging and I’m ready for them to come to the yard before roosting time, I go out with the white bucket. They will come running from every direction. I shake it a little to call any stragglers. They all come in to see what I’ve brought.
The use of chicken tractors is popular with those who live in an area where free ranging isn’t lawful or for those who don’t want to free range. A chicken tractor can be any form of a covered run on wheels. They’re easily moved from one spot of fresh grass to another while leaving a fertilized area when they’re moved. This offers your flock the benefits of foraging on grass and whatever bugs happen to be in the area. It also keeps them out of the areas you don’t want them in. The flock is protected from predators in the enclosed tractor.
Another option is to provide a covered fenced area large enough for your flock to move around in. They’ll get some of the benefits of free-ranging, but they’ll be safe. Your gardens and porches will also be safe from scratching and pooping. This method will require you to replant grass or provide some other form of fodder for them. They will quickly destroy all vegetation and protein life in an enclosed area. This is a viable option also, it just requires careful planning.
So, is free ranging an option for you? Don’t feel bad if it’s not. You may not be willing to risk the loss of a bird to predators. You may live in an area where free ranging is not an option. No matter what the reason, with a little extra care you can provide a happy, healthy life for your flock.
Are you a free-range chicken keeper? Good for you. I know the pleasure of watching the flock find treats and call to each other, the joy of the entertainment they provide, and the satisfaction of a healthy, happy flock.
Be sure to share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below. You can always reach me personally and I’ll help in any way I can. A Happy, Healthy Flock to You!
Safe and Happy Journey,
Rhonda and The Pack
I hope this helps answer the question how to raise free range chickens!
9 thoughts on “How to Raise Free Range Chickens”
I’m surrounded by woods on 3 sides and had our fair share of critters trying to get into the coops, none had success but we did. My old set up (1st coop, yr 1) was a divided 2 room fully enclosed 8×10 dirt floor coop with 18 bantams (9 & 9). Year 2 we added 23 more but these were sexlinks and 2 RIR boys so we built another coop. We next did 18ft x 24ft x 7ft high fenced runs for each coop with netting overhead. Mid year a friend gave me her 6 khaki Campbell’s ducks and 8 chickens (4 & 4). Now we’re up to 3 18 x 24 coops and pens for chickens and an 18 x 10.5 for ducks. I then covered all with deer netting overhead which worked great for 2 years until we got 10 inches of very heavy wet snow. I had just had emergency surgery and was restricted on everything but resting. We needed help to unbury the pens and remove the netting from 2 pens where it was completely destroyed. I’m grateful they are also tucked under trees to help shield them from hawks. Although 1 hawk did try to gain entry on an end pen without success, netting worked even with damage from snow. Each year I add 6 up to 30 new chicks to my flock depending on how many were lost the prior year or rehomed. Last year we built a new 2 room coop (12X10 with 6X10 storage) above the old pens for all the ducks and chickens Our older coops were prone to flooding and branches were falling on them from the old trees overhead. Our flocks are now all housed in the 12X10 and I added a smaller roosting only coop for last years group. As much as I tried to get them to leave the step-up coop, they refused. It was built without nesting boxes, just roosting bars and room for food/water. They go to the bigger coop for food, water and laying eggs 99% of the time. I think I’ve collected 5 eggs all of last year from the roosting coop. I now have 7 roosters, 57 hens (8 ms to 5 ys), 6 – 12 week old chicks, 3 duck hens and 3 drakes. Ducks share big coop with chickens. They have a 72X40 pen with 3ft up to 7ft high fencing. I don’t lock their coops up at night as they have a “doggie door” to let themselves in/out through. I’ve only had a handful fly out of the pen. Our brother dogs are penned next to them as a deterrent and “alert system” (so far has worked) at the ground level plus we have old patio and beach umbrellas with giant eyeballs painted on them to deter hawks or other flying predators inside the pen. The umbrellas also give the flock extra shade too on a sunny summer day.
Hello. We have 15 free range chickens. They have 2 acres to explore from 6am to approximately 7pm. The chickens are between 2 months and 2.5 months. We have been free-ranging them for about 1 month in North Florida. We have an enclosure for night safety and rain shelter. My question is: when can we begin feeding them once per day? Since they are not full grown, I have been reluctant to reduce from three feeds per day to one feed per day, even though this is my goal. Chickens are very active and seem SO happy in life. However, I would like to feed them just once per day as this has been my goal since purchasing my 2 acre property. Again, my questions are: should I wait until chickens are full-grown before feedings only once per day and also, is there an approximate amount to feed each chicken when feeding once per day? Thanks! 🙂
This is my favorite advice-piece with clear, true information about free-range chickens, and one of the best things I’ve read all year, since the arrival of our tiny, newly hatched chicks who are now 20 weeks old! Thanks for your great site and creative, informative posts. We are loving our ten RIR’s, and grateful to finally have them on our farm. They are so happy! I’m fortunately home and able to check-in on them though thankfully so far there are no problems. We follow your advice about predators including turning them out from around noon til sunset due to our neighboring families of hawks and owls. It’s wonderful to gain more knowledge about their behavior, understanding springtime is their busiest hunting time of the year, as our organic 15 acre farm is within hundreds of acres of farmland with woods, pastures, and ponds, where all species of wildlife are welcomed and thrive. The two roosters are getting along well and just began to crow last week, so proud to guide and look out for the hens all day til dusk when it’s time for us to secure the door after the little flock “puts themselves to bed”, roosting in the safely renovated old chicken house. Thank you and best to all out there!
We live in 60 acres and I want to free range some chickens. Obviously, space is not an issue. But we also have three cats who we got for mousing. They are adept at hunting. How do we train our cats that the chickens are off the menu? Is this even possible?
Thank you for any/all replies.
You’ve probably figured this out by now, but thought I’d comment anyway. We have 4 indoor/outdoor cats and we’re worried about the same. We kept the cats away from the chickens till the chix were large enough to be intimidating to the cats….about 3-4 months. One of our cats occasionally runs into the middle of the hen group to scatter them. More for fun than ‘hunting’, he has never tried to catch one. The other 3 keep their distance and run away from the chix if they come near.
Hope you are doing well and the family is well !
Thank you for the info on raising the free range chickens.
My question is: when can I separate the chicks from their mother? I mean how many days or weeks for brooding so that the hen can start again the process of laying
Regards Roy maduma
Our chickens spend most of the day outside, but spend nights and very cold days in the coop. How often should i clean the coop, add shavings, change shavings, etc…. ?
Hopefully you can guide me a little bit on this. We already have ducks for eggs, plenty of acreage to spare, so we thought about getting some chickens for meat. (Duck eggs are superior to chicken eggs by the way)
If I am to fence in an area to raise 50 meat chickens, how big does that area have to be to provide them a good opportunity to eat bugs and all that?
The coop size for them to shelter in, that I already have a handle on. Just want to get a pointer on how big of an area I have to fence in to keep them happy.
Looking forward to hear from you. Idar
Thanks for the advice. I recently moved to the “country” just outside of city limits.I have about half an acre but it’s not fenced in. We have a 10 ft by 19 foot garden and grasshoppers are devouring the plants. Every website I have looked at say chickens will help with the grasshoppers so I am seriously considering getting some. I am completely new at this “country living” so I need all the help I can get. I have put up a 10×15 dog pen but my dog does not like it would this work to put a coop in for protection at night? How many chickens would you suggest for the area? And how big of a coop would I need? And should I put up some chicken wire around the yard to keep them out of horse pastures and wheat fields surrounding me?