If you close your eyes and picture the perfect homestead, you might have visions of chickens roaming and pecking freely throughout your acreage. Eating tasty insects and filling your coop with eggs containing bright orange yolks. It’s a pretty picture, but is it realistic? Let’s look at the pros and cons of free range chickens to see which one is really a better choice for you!
The Benefits of Free Range Chickens
- You will save money on commercial chicken feed. If your chickens are roaming freely all day they will be able to search out much of their own food. They will find insects, berries, grubs and greens to fill their stomachs and in turn you will not have to supplement as much in the way of feed.
- Your eggs will be more nutrient dense. When a chicken’s diet includes naturally foraged items their eggs will benefit by transferring some of those nutrients to their eggs. There is some controversy around this subject, but you can’t convince me that a chicken eating more natural and fresh foods will produce eggs of the same nutrition as those raised purely on corn and grain.
- Your chickens well be less likely to become overweight. Yes, chickens can become obese too and it can be quite dangerous. The more room they have to roam, the more exercise they will get.
- You will have less pest insects in your yard. Japanese beetles? June bugs? Grasshoppers? Those are favorites of chickens- they eat them and you don’t have to set out traps to stop infestations.
Those are the main benefits you obtain from free ranging your chickens. So, now let’s look at the cons.
The Negatives to Free Range Chickens
- You will save money on commercial chicken feed. I know what you are thinking, I already said that up in the benefits section. But, this time it’s a negative, because they will not only eat insects, they will eat your garden. You will find perfectly ripe tomatoes with holes, your zucchinis will be pecked, and your strawberries nonexistent.
- Chickens love to scratch. If chickens are allowed to freely scratch they will scratch in places you don’t want, like on newly sprouted crocuses, newly planted vegetable seedlings, or in the middle of your front yard.
- Chickens love to dust. Often times dusting will go hand in hand with scratching. Your chickens will scratch up a nice big hole in your front yard and then proceed to dust in it for hours making it bigger and also ensuring that the grass will not grow back any time soon!
- Chickens poop. And if allowed to do so freely they will poop in places you don’t want. Like your back deck or directly outside your front door. It’s not pretty. It’s not inviting. And it’s not fun to step in.
- You will waste your liquid gold. Have you ever amended your garden with chicken manure? It’s good stuff, and when chickens are in a more contained location you will get more of it, when they free range most of your manure will be spread all over your yard and will never make it into the garden- except when they are in there eating it….
- They are at risk from predators. If you have neighborhood dogs or trouble with wild predators such as foxes, raccoons or bird or prey, your chickens will be much more at risk free ranging than if they are in a yard or covered run.
Looking at that list you might think that I am not a supporter of free range chickens. But if were to look outside I will see a chicken sitting on my front porch and if I look out into the field I can see a dozen more. Our current chickens are 10o%, completely and utterly free ranged. But on the to-list for this winter…is fencing. And that brings me to the middle ground.
The Best of Both Worlds
There aren’t only 2 options. It’s not black or white. Free range or caged run. There are actually a few middle ground options the offer the best of both worlds.
The Chicken Tractor:
A chicken tractor is basically a covered run on wheels. The chickens are enclosed but their house and run is moveable so that it can be moved to a new piece of grass daily. They still get the benefits of foraging and pecking grass and bugs from fresh earth, but they will not have access to the garden or living spaces. Because it is moved daily the chickens will not overwork one piece of land and the grass will be healthier because of them. And since the tractor is enclosed, your chickens will also be safe from predators.
The Yarded Chicken:
This is my preferred way of raising chickens, and the way our chickens were pastured for years before we moved to our current homestead. The fenced chicken yard is large enough for the chickens to get almost all of the benefits of free ranging, yet confined enough to keep them out of the garden and off my deck. You will have to manage your pasture to ensure that they will not destroy every living thing and be left with a barren yard of dirt and you will still have some predators to deal with, but overall yarding your chickens can be one of the best options that make everyone happy and healthy.
How do you contain your chickens? Covered run? A yard? Free range? If you have any other pros and cons to add to my list I would love to hear them!
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