Do you want your chickens to roam free? Many people are unsure of whether or not free-ranging is a good idea. On the one hand, chickens can eat bugs, weeds, and pests in your garden. On the other hand, is it is safe to let them out of the run? Will they get lost or caught by predators. What will happen if they run away?
Chickens can free-range. Lost of chicken keepers let their chickens out in the morning and in again in the evening. In most cases, the benefits of free-ranging your chicken outweigh the risks if done correctly. However, there are some drawbacks to be aware of.
In this article, we will cover questions such as: can you let your chicken roam in your garden, how far will free-range chickens roam? And many more. We also mention the benefits and drawbacks of letting chickens roam free and tips on how to do it safely.
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What Are the Benefits of Free-range Chickens?
There are many benefits of free-ranging your chickens, not just for your chicken’s sake but also for your own advantages.
Free-range chickens are healthier and require less feed and water. This is because free-ranging chickens can forage naturally, which means they’re not only eating their natural diet of grasses and insects but also getting proper exercise.
Free-range chickens also have a better quality of life: they have more options to go where they want, such as finding shade when needed and opportunities for a dust bath. One significant benefit for chickens lower in the pecking order is that they have sufficient room to escape bullies. Chickens in small or medium-sized runs are more likely to be pecked by their flock-mates, which can cause injury or death.
Letting chickens roam free also has several benefits to you: Free-range eggs are more nutritious than those from caged birds because they are lower in fat and contain more nutrients such as protein and zinc.
Your feathery girls will also fertilize your lawn and your plants as they poop in your yard and garden beds, which will make your grass greener and your plants grow stronger. Berry bushes and fruit trees will yield more when they get the added nutrients.
Free-range Chickens Will Provide Financial Benefits
Your chickens will eat less supplementary feed as they can forage for food and bugs in your yard. And if you are planning on selling eggs, free-range eggs can often fetch a higher price compared to eggs from caged birds. Not only will you save on feed you can also generate a higher income from your girls. What’s not to like?
Less Work for You
If you are not a fan of cleaning the chicken coop (and, honestly, who is?), You’ll also appreciate that your hens will lay most of their droppings out in the “wild”. This way, you will have to do less cleaning in the run and coop.
Besides, the lower accumulation of droppings in the run means fewer instances of infectious diseases like bumblefoot.
And last but not least, chickens are great for natural pest control. Since the free-range chickens will be able to roam your garden and peck at insects, they will eat lots of little pests like aphids and grubs.
And if you are worried about Lyme disease, it will please you to know that chickens are very effective at keeping the tick population down.
What Are the Cons of Free-range Chickens?
However, all is not rosy with keeping free-range girls. There are some disadvantages and risks of letting chickens roam free that you should be aware of:
Increased Risk of Predators
The biggest concern for free-range chickens are predators such as hawks, foxes, coyotes, etc. These wild animals can easily kill a chicken or two if they get into your yard. In some locations, you may also have to look out for two-legged thieves and sometimes their dogs.
You could fence your entire property, which will deter some predatory attacks. But unless you spend a lot of time and money on predator-proofing it, you probably will not eliminate it entirely. Personally, I consider the occasional (rare) loss the cost of free-ranging, but if you live in an area with more predators, you may want to give this more weight.
Free-range chickens will sometimes lay their eggs in out-of-the-way places. These eggs can be difficult to find, and they may go bad before you can collect them all, or they will be found by scavengers such as rats and some snakes.
Although you probably will lose some eggs, this does not have to be a huge issue. Just make sure to provide attractive nests in the coop, then your hens will mostly prefer to go into the safe and comfortable coop to lay their eggs. Three things characterize an attractive chicken nest:
- Clean, dry nesting materials
- Place one or two fake eggs in some of the nest boxes to encourage laying there.
- Nesting boxes should be shielded with their entrance not turning towards the coop door. This makes the chicken feel safer from predators.
Your Chickens May Get Lost
Free-range chickens will very rarely run away. They prefer to stay together and not too far from their home (the coop), and they will return to roost in the evening. However, they may occationally wander too far away to find their way back, or a predator (perceived or real) may cause your hens to fly up and get lost. Here is an article on how to keep your girls from wandering off.
They May Get Sick or Eat Harmful Things
Free-range chickens are more susceptible to diseases and illness. This is partly because they may eat something bad for them or catch one of the many bacteria and viruses hiding in the ground. They are also at a higher risk of catching contagious diseases from wild birds, such as bird flu.
The best way to protect your hens (and roosters) from infectious diseases is to pay attention to early signs of illness. Signs of an unhealthy chicken include:
- apathy, and signs of depression
- unnatural posture (such as hunching over)
- lack of coordination (uncoordinated or spasmodic movements)
- pale or swollen comb or wattles
- abnormal droppings (bloody, greenish, and/or diarrhea)
- closed eyes
- respiratory issues (like sneezing and coughing)
- low appetite or excessive drinking
- low or no egg production
Effective ways to prevent chicken diseases are to provide a clean environment inside the coop and keep a 30-day quarantine for all new additions to the flock. And make sure you provide a clean water source that is not an open puddle or pool of standing water.
Neighbors May Complain
If you can’t keep your free-range chickens on your own property, then they might end up running into a neighbor’s yard. Some neighbors enjoy having feathery visitors, but many do not.
It’s not easy to keep a chicken flock if they roam freely in the neighborhood as they might be annoying and cause discomfort among people. But free-ranging is about providing as much space to your chicken flock as possible, and it does not necessarily exclude fencing that will keep them within your property lines.
A deer fence or mesh fencing of no more than three feet in height will work most of the time. Even though most hens (depending on breeds) can easily jump a three-foot fence, they are also very devoted flock animals that prefer to stay close to each other. If you need to keep them all on your property at all times, you may have to install a six-foot fence.
However, if your property is sufficiently large, you may not have to do any fencing at all. Chickens prefer to stay relatively close to home, and as long as they have learned that the coop is where food is and where it’s safe to sleep, they will usually stay within a few hundred feet from it.
They May Get Injured in Traffic
Free-range chickens can sometimes venture into the street and get injured or killed by cars. This can, to a large degree, also be prevented by barriers such as fences and hedges.
They May Destroy Your Vegetable Garden
All chicken keepers know that their hens are fond of digging up vegetable gardens, eating plants and fruit not grown for them, and peck at freshly planted seeds to destroy what you’re trying to grow.
Another common complaint is when they leave droppings on the lawn where you like to walk bare-footed or where your children play.
One way to protect your crops and where you walk bare-footed is to enclose not the chickens but certain areas where they should not have access. This can be temporary garden netting, such as the Omlet chicken fencing. These types of fences can be easily removed when your vegetable garden is not being used, or when the season no longer invites you to walk bare-footed on the lawn.
If you are dedicated to free-ranging or just dislike having fences all over your property, you may also consider this article on four ways to keep chickens out of the garden without fencing.
Should I Let My Chickens Roam Free All Day?
As long as you or someone else is home, the chickens can be out as well. The bigger question is: should they also be roaming free when you are not at home?
I would say that it is very much up to your discretion. A short trip to the grocery store should not be a problem, but they might need to be in their run if you are gone all day.
Some people keep their birds running free in the backyard while at work. Where I live, that is very common, as long as you make sure to get home before dark, when most of our local predators come out. That may be different in your area.
Because you probably can’t stay home every day all day, you should still have a chicken run that they can be in without getting too cramped.
If your backyard chickens are used to being contained inside their run, letting them free-range for the first time can be overwhelming. It’s important not to overwhelm them by letting them run around on overgrown fields and long grasses that make it harder to find their way home. Consider keeping them contained in a smaller area in the beginning.
In Conclusion: Can You Let Chickens Roam Free?
The benefits of free-ranging chickens outweigh the cons in most cases. If you don’t have other animals that may hurt your flock, then it would better to let them roam freely within your property limits than to keep them contained inside a run.
Chickens are natural scavengers that will eat almost anything, including grasshoppers and bugs from your garden or worms from your compost bin. They also provide fertilizer as they clean up manure in their yard, which can help replenish nutrients back into the soil after being lost through tillage practices.
As long as you put some safety precautions in places like fences towards roads and neighbors and teach dogs about not chasing the chickens, letting them free-range can be fun and beneficial for all parts involved.