Free-Range Chicken Problems
They Want to Be Free, But That’s Not Always Good for Them
By Donna Insco, Missouri — I have kept a flock of free-range laying hens for 20 years. Allowing poultry to roam can cause problems, but there are reasonable solutions to those problems. Some things must be considered before letting your flock out of the coop. A free-ranging flock is not recommended if you have close neighbors. Your birds will not recognize property lines and you can’t expect a neighbor to fence his property to keep your birds out. Some breeds of poultry wander farther than others. I remember my grandmother’s guineas out in the field 150 yards from the house. However, my New Hampshires and Rhode Islands never get more than 50 yards away. Another thing to consider is the proximity of neighboring dogs, since they will likely be the predators that cause the most concern. In many areas, free running dogs outnumber the local population of wild predators.
Advantages of Free Ranging
For me, the benefits of free-range birds outweigh the disadvantages. Since I started keeping chickens, the price of 50 pounds of laying mash has nearly tripled, and the price continues to climb. Allowing birds to forage for some of their own food reduces the costs of keeping them. In summer, hens can get approximately half of their food by patrolling the yard, pasture, edge of the woods and barnyard.
Free-range birds suppress ticks, ants and crop pests such as caterpillars and grasshoppers. Chickens relish these pests as tasty morsels. Their constant scratching in the dirt helps prevent some insect eggs from hatching by uncovering them and causing the eggs to dry out in the sun and wind.
Chickens also dislike snakes, and will sometimes let you know when one is near. My hens have a peculiar cackle when a snake is close by. Once, the flock had a snake surrounded and backed up against the truck tire. From a distance, it looked like a copperhead, but turned out to be a harmless hognose.
Disadvantages of Free Ranging
Problem #1: Flying Where They Shouldn’t Be
Roaming chickens cause problems, however. They will completely destroy young plants in a garden. They will jump to remove tomatoes and berries from established vines, as well as peck holes in turnips, cucumbers, and squash. If they can reach it, they will either eat it or ruin it.
The solution is to fence the garden with 48-inch poultry netting with a strand of barbed wire six inches above that. Initial costs of fencing are high, but “chicken wire” will also keep out rabbits, turtles, dogs, and other small animals that can’t climb. Depending on climate, poultry netting will last for eight to 12 years before it rusts away.
My garden fence worked beautifully at keeping the hens out until I bought several dozen Barred Rocks. They were apparently the hoodlums of the chicken world, because they gleefully sailed over the fence and made confetti out of my vegetable plants. If you keep big heavy birds that don’t fly well, a garden fence may be all that is required. But now I routinely clip the flight feathers of my birds.
Problem #2: Predators
Losing chickens to predators is another concern for owners of free-range birds. Foxes, coyotes, skunks, weasels, raccoons, opossums, and hawks all enjoy chicken for dinner. In the years I have owned poultry, I have lost perhaps 30 birds to predators. I can honestly say that 98 percent of the time the predator was my own dog. On two separate occasions, I took in stray dogs that turned out to be chicken killers. It is probably a mistake to keep strays, or to accept second-hand or free-to-a-good-home dogs. Any canine not raised around free-roaming birds will likely become a chicken killer. Once they know it’s wrong, they can be quite sneaky at it.
Conversely, the best defense against other four-legged predators is a big farm dog patrolling his domain for interlopers. Our dogs consider themselves to be masters of all they survey. Several opossums and skunks have experienced an untimely demise because they didn’t believe it.
I don’t have a serious problem with hawks. Only twice have I witnessed birds of prey attempting to take one of the hens. Once, a big red-tail plunged out of the sky, hit a hen in an explosion of feathers, but then left empty-taloned when the hen rolled under the tractor. She survived.
Another time, some sort of falcon streaked between the barn and the coop and made a tight turn directly over the heads of several hens. They didn’t wait for it to make a second pass, but dove for cover like kids playing commando. Suddenly aware that death could come from above, for weeks the flock was seldom seen out in the open. Seeing people up close makes hawks nervous, or perhaps they realize that their natural prey disappears when humans are around. So the best defense against birds of prey is a lot of outside human activity. A bunch of noisy, rambunctious children works fabulously.
Problem #3: Losing the Eggs
Another problem with free-range hens is the loss of eggs. Instead of using the nest boxes provided, chickens may prefer to find their own secret spots to lay eggs, often inconveniently located. The cure is to keep them in their coop until at least noon, to force them to lay where you want them to. Some will still delay egg laying until they’re released. Every few days, we look in the spots where they have made secret nests in the past, and manage to collect most of the eggs.
Problem #4: Foraging for Danger
Keep in mind, also, that anything harmful, such as pesticides, cleansers or fertilizer must be kept away from poultry. Chickens will eat things that other animals wouldn’t dream of eating, and since they are in the human food chain, be especially vigilant. Poultry should not be allowed to forage in the trash, so keep trash and recycling bins covered and inaccessible. Besides the obvious poisoning opportunity, things like bits of aluminum foil or Styrofoam cups or packing peanuts may stop up their crop and kill them.
A flock of hens parading around the farm is the image of country life. The problems can be managed so that the farmstead can enjoy the benefits of less expensive birds and fewer insect pests.
Donna Insco raises free-range chickens in Richwoods, Missouri.
Originally published in the August/September 2016 issue of Backyard Poultry magazine.