Free-range hens: What you should consider before letting your flock out.

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If you have (or are thinking about getting) a backyard flock of chickens you should consider the possibility of letting your flock free-range.  Chickens are foraging animals and thrive best when they can hunt for insects (and lizards!) and greens which no chicken run provides.  Being able to scavenge the lawn for worms, to pluck at grass and weeds, and to explore is deeply satisfying to them. 

We let our first flock of hens free-range a couple of hours a day (the last couple of hours of daylight) and they loved it.  It was wonderful to sit out in my garden and listen to the hens scratching, cooing, and scuffling.  If I was doing yard work they would follow behind me to see what interesting activity I was up to. 

By the time we got our second flock of hens we had a dog.  The dog went wild when she saw the birds in the coop the first time and Philip had to train her to not get excited around them.  Between that and the fact that the yard wasn't properly fenced, we never let this flock free-range.  Naturally I was scared of the dog killing the chickens because I've known quite a few chicken-killing dogs.

At our current house the fencing isn't an issue and we've been wondering for a long time whether or not our dog might be trained not to kill the hens if we let them out.  So we planned to do some experiments with the dog and the birds this summer but in the end the whole question of the dog versus the hens was effortlessly answered while Philip was working on building the new coop one evening.  He had to have the chicken run door open for some reason, the dog was close by, the access was there, and nothing happened.  The chickens ventured out and our dog continued to watch them with no more than casual interest. 

Just like that we are now able to let them free-range and I can tell you that they are very excited about the yard!

It worked for our flock this time, but will it work for yours?  There are some things you need to consider before letting your flock free-range in your yard:

  • Fencing: especially in a suburban environment, you need to make sure your fencing is secure.  It should be 6' tall (most hens won't fly such a tall fence, though it isn't impossible because chickens did start out as jungle birds who lived in the trees) and it should not have any gaps in it big enough for the chickens to get out through.  It is equally important that no neighborhood dogs can get in to your chickens.

  • Dogs:  if you have a dog you need to make sure of your dog's feelings about the chickens before you simply let them out.  A dog who wants to kill a chicken will accomplish the job so quickly you will not likely have time to save the situation.  If anyone has any tricks or tips on training dogs to be mellow about chickens please share! 

  • Mess:  Chickens poop, a lot.  They do it whenever they need to and don't care where it lands so your yard will be scattered with their droppings.  I have never minded this.  They tend to prefer being in the dirt, the lawn, or under foliage rather than on pathways and decks, so I don't mind a little mess from them.

  • Scratching:  Chickens forage by scratching at the ground with their strong clawed feet.  This is how they unearth seeds and grubs.  They will make holes in the garden.  They can be quite devastating to shallow rooted plants.  One of their favorite things to do in the warm weather when it's hot is to find a shady spot in the dirt and dig themselves a shallow hole to dust themselves up in.  I find this charming except when they unintentionally expose the roots of nearby plants. 

  • Snacking:  While it's true that chickens will often hunt down your slugs and snails and also enjoy plucking at a wide range of weeds, they really have an all-inclusive palate.  This means that they will equally enjoy snacking on young vegetable seedlings, flowers, rose leaves, and peck around any available fruits or vegetables. 

  • Getting them back in the coop:  Come dusk most chickens will automatically find their way back to the safety of their coop.  They are almost night blind so as the light begins to fade they will wander closer back to safety until they put themselves to bed.  Letting your hens free-range puts a responsibility on you to make sure that they've all made it back into the run and/or coop before dark and that you LOCK them in.  Sometimes a hen will get flustered and not find her way back before it's too dark and she'll just settle down right wherever she is and hope for the best.  The best does not usually come to hens sitting out all night without protection.  Weasels, snakes, skunks, and most of all, raccoons all want to eat your birds and they are just waiting for an opportunity to snatch them.  Nightfall is when most of them come hunting*.  So if you can't commit to locking your birds in at dusk every single night, you should not let them out.

  • Birds of Prey:  Although I haven't personally had a problem with chicken hawks or other birds of prey, you need to know if that might be a problem where you live as Belinda pointed out in the comments.  A large hawk can carry a chicken away, but especially vulnerable are smaller breeds such as banties.  If you don't know if you have such birds of prey in your area, ask the poultry experts** at your local farm store.

With my first flock I started off letting them free-range all day long but after experiencing the damage they did to my most tender vegetable plantings I decided to only let them out during the last two hours of daylight (generally when I liked to be in my garden too) so I could watch over them and scare them off of any fresh plantings.  This served me very well.  The girls got some well deserved foraging in and some freedom but didn't have enough time to do much damage.  The reason I let them out at the end of the day, instead of in the morning, is because not all chickens are easy to catch when they don't want to be caught, but all chickens naturally return to their roost as it darkens which cuts down on work for me.

If I had a bigger property and could fence off my vegetables I would let my flock free-range all day.  But even a couple of hours a day will improve the quality of life your flock enjoys, not to mention the vastly improved quality of the eggs they reward you with.  It's true!  The more your birds get to forage on weeds and bugs and dirt the richer their yolks will be. 

Not everyone who keeps chickens will be able to let them free-range.  What can you do to improve your flock's quality of life in a run?  Here are three things you can do:

  • Weed toss:  When you weed your yard, toss the fresh weeds into the chicken run.  The bigger the pile you give your flock the happier they'll be scratching around in it, eating the leaves (rich in vitamins!) and looking for any attached bugs.

  • Be sure to give them straw in their run: This gives them a satisfying feeling of digging, which makes a nice rustling noise as they work through it.  When it's time to put new straw in the run I bring it in a big chunk and don't spread it around.  The birds like to do this themselves and you'll find they do a great job of distributing it around the run.

  • Kitchen scraps:  I think if birds can't go looking for treats it's important to give them treats from the kitchen.  No grains (except fresh corn!) because if you feed them commercial feed they're already getting all the grain they need, and avoid giving them potatoes.  Otherwise you can give them anything.  You'll probably find that they have preferences (mine won't eat carrots but LOVE turnips, for example).  The scraps will enrich their diet, which will enrich their eggs, and it's a way to compost some of your kitchen scraps.

There are two sounds I like best in the world:  the first one is the sound of my kid laughing, the second one is the sound my chickens make when I toss them watermelon scraps, a quiet clucking and cooing which I think is more soothing than the sound of fountain water in a garden.

*Though my friend lost a hen to a raccoon during the day time!  This is pretty rare but it can happen. 

  • **This will be the person in charge of ordering and caring for the chickens the farm store sells.  They are nearly always people with strong experience in raising poultry and can answer most questions you might have about keeping hens.
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Something else to consider if you have medium to light breeds is birds of prey. We have had one ranging in our area intermittently for the last 6 months or so. The first day I saw it I was eternally grateful that I always have a roof over my girls heads.

Tractoring, mobile cages for chooks is another way to get most of the benefits of free range without actually having your girls out loose in cases where you live up close and personal with predators.

Kind Regards

Those are excellent points Belinda! I can't believe I forgot to mention the hawks- I never have an exposed run because of them but I forgot that many people don't think of this. I will add that to this text! I also neglected to mention chicken tractors because in my single minded way, since they aren't particularly practical on my own lot it didn't come to mind, yet it is a good system for many people.

Thank you so much for your input!!

Great article!!! Really good advice. I'm afraid I have not one but two dogs that would love to kill a chicken so my birds, when I get some, will undoubtedly be confined. I love the idea of "Chicken Tractors" and will be using that idea to help them forage different areas, AND be protected. Aside from my naughty terriers, we have all kinds of hungry wildlife and huge eagles to boot! Thanks for such a well-written comprehensive post. Cheers! Bonnie

Now that we've enlarged our flock to 12 - I only let them freerange during the last couple of hours in the evening. I can keep an eye on them that way. Otherwise, they range into the neighbors yards - and while most don't mind too much, I do'nt want to cause problems with them.

Also - I trained my chickens to go back into the coop when I bring our kitchen scraps. When they see the big blue bowl they all come running. It's hilarious. (okay, I didn't actually train them - but they figured it out really quickly. Chickens are smarter than people give them credit for!)

Karmyn- it sounds like your initial fear of chickens may be over? 12 is such a great number for a flock! Mine come running when I come to their coop too, always hoping for scraps. But damn, when I actually need to catch one they are very wily. Normally I have no trouble but we just built a new (WAY BETTER) hen house and one of the older hens was refusing to go into it and I was trying to catch her but couldn't do it. Silly bird.

Bonnie- Terriers really can be a problem with chickens. Of course it isn't really that they're bad, they're doing what their instinct knows to be the right thing. We have friends whose terrier killed at least one of their chickens. Chicken tractors can be a great option for some situations and well worth checking into.

This is a dangerous post - I've been wanting chickens for a while, and our urban environment allows for hens (no roosters of course). Your information about letting the roam, and supplementing their diet makes it sound even more plausible! My better-half may find himself with a chicken-coop-building project pretty soon... :)

I have thoroughly enjoyed reading everyone's advice and thoughts. This morning, I am off to purchase 3 hens, something I have planned for years. Their coop is ready and as safe as it possibly can be, eg (foxes are a problem in australia). My question relates to how soon I can let them out of their coop to free range. We have an acre with a great garden ready for them to explore. I have been advised to keep them in the coop for the first 2 weeks and not to let them out at all. Supposedly this will teach them where to lay and be safe. I would appreciate any comments or advice. I don't like this idea to be honest, I don't want to cage my girls for too long, the garden awaits them ! How soon can i let them loose ? Cheers Josephine

Hi Josephine! Are you buying full grown hens then, not chicks? I would agree with the advice to keep them penned for two weeks to let them get used to their home quarters and settle in. From what I've heard from people who have lots of property and let their hens free-range all day is that sometimes you will have to hunt to find the eggs. If your hens aren't laying yet and you want them to lay in the henhouse I wouldn't let them free-range until they start laying, and then I might not let them out each day until they've done their laying. My hens have always done their laying by mid-day so even though I let them out in the yard now, they always lay in their nest boxes because I don't let them out until late afternoon.

So that's something to consider.

While you give them time to settle in you can make sure they are super happy hens by giving them plenty of kitchen scraps, bring them piles of freshly dug up weeds (mine LOVE this because there are usually bugs still on them), and put a bale of alfalfa hay in their coop to scratch at (my friends John and Jin told me about the alfalfa). They won't be sad, I promise.

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