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 100%, 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.
Have healthier, happier chickens! The Busy Homesteader’s Backyard Chicken Binder is full of checklists, to-do lists, record sheets, and resources to help you care for your chickens in the best way possible!
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!
Hello! I enjoyed your chicken post. We live waaay up in the Sierra mountains and had free range chickens for many years before the predators moved in and began harassing them when they were in the coop at night. In one night we lost them all and it was heartbreaking! We mourned for Sally, Lorraine, Ginny….. But, after a few years of not having our birds, we have decided to go for it again (we miss the interaction, reduction of bugs and ticks around the homestead, not to mention the fresh EGGS!) and will be reinforcing the coop, and perhaps trying a chicken tractor, although, I much prefer to let them roam free during the daytime :) My husband is a little hesitant to go free range again though. Well, I’ve got hens on the brain now. Thanks for sharing :) Happy holidays!
I can’t imagine how devastating! We don’t deal well with losing one at a time! I have been wrestling with the decision to allow them to range vs putting up a fence. We are planning a much bigger produce-oriented farm and can’t afford for them to peck their way through the crops anymore. We hope to still let them out to range in the winters though. Thanks for sharing!
I love the IDEA of free ranging too. My chickens have always been behind a fence though. One of my reasons is that a free range chicken may get into your neighbor’s petunias. With neighborhood restrictions the way they are, I think that it is best to be a responsible neighbor, that way neighbors are more likely to be open to the idea of chickens.
Free range is nice in concept. I like my greens without chicken drizzle. On the other hand, the entertainment of free birds during grasshopper season is worth seeing.
June bug catching is quite amusing too :)
I’ll be glad when we get back into a house… would love to have chickens! :D
We love our girls free ranging, but hate the poop and the mess they make in the garden. So, we created “paddocks” where we move their free range area weekly, and they get the benefits of grass and bugs and such, but we don’t have to deal with them all over the place. Or in the garden. Sorta best case scenario for our situation, I guess.
Great post! I agree with you on them roaming into our garden and taking bites out of our tomatoes, haha! We’re working on a plan to protect our garden alittle more this coming season and still let the girls have some stretching room!
We fenced in our garden this past year- but our berries are outside that fence. We finally decided to put up a fence around the chickens since it wouldn’t be feasible to fence the berries!
Chicken and duck poop on the back deck – it’s enough to make my DH crazy. The holes everywhere and the pecked tomatoes are my beef! We are also thinking about pasturing next year…but it is so nice to see them wandering around. Great article :)
Thx for sharing on Thank Goodness it’s Monday. I agree with you, and now have them “free range” in a large fenced in yard for half the day. It’s much more than a run. We keep 10-20 chickens in 1/3 acre with shrubs, small trees, and our compost bins to make foraging a lot more interesting than just a patch of grass. There is still some risk of predation, but much less, because we can see where chickens are at all times, and they do have plenty of cover within the yard where they can hide from hawks. As usual, a middle ground works better than either extreme (total free range vs. tight confinement)
I agree- middle ground is usually best. Thanks for commenting!
Wonderful post. I let my girls free range and with six I was getting a lot of problems in my garden areas….bummer. I lost some chickens to an owl so the three girls now stay in the coop and the run. They don’t even want to go into the yard. I miss seeing them in the yard. I will add new chicks this Spring and get them started in the yard again, maybe the older gals will come out.
This is very complete coverage of the ins and outs of free ranging. My chickens are currently 100% free ranging. They nest up in the trees at night and do their thing all day long. I have an electric perimeter fence that keeps out the biggest predators, and a lovely bunch of crows who keep away most of the hawks. We fence our gardens, or just share what isn’t fenced. It’s a real joy to have the chickens running about here and there all day, running up to see us when they spot us, hoping for a treat and watching them chase bugs. Of course, we’re not finding very many eggs, so that’s a downside! And the poop! I like to warn people that free range chickens means free range poop. Especially when it’s rainy, they just hang out under cover on my front porch all day. So gross. So far, their entertainment value and joy of having them running around outweighs the negatives, but I could always change my mind.
Ours have had free range of our property for the past 2 years (since we moved to acreage). I have wrestled with the decision to put up a fence, but we are hoping to start up a much larger farm business- u-pick pumpkins and berries, and can’t afford to have them free any longer…I will miss seeing them wander the fields, but not the poop on my deck!
Thanks once again for sharing on Tuesdays With a Twist. We don’t have chickens, yet, but due to the reasons you have mentioned is why I want to use the chicken tractor. Pinning to my chicken board.
I can’t imagine having chickens NOT free ranging unless you live in town. The benefits outweigh the negatives, hands down. The entertainment factor? Priceless!
I used to think that…but when you grow crops as a livelihood and chickens eat those crops…..the fenced area we are building for the chickens is large- 1/4 acre or more….so they still have plenty of room.
But how do you keep them IN the fenced area?
Mine chickens just hop up on top of the four foot high fence, hop down on the other side and roam away. How tall a fence will keep them in?
We had 11 hens and a rooster that we raised from chicks. They’re almost 2 years old. We’ve been letting them free range on our 1 1/4 acres for almost a year. We and they loved it! They’ve always been closed in their coop at night. Almost a week ago something (coyote?) took one of our hens. I’m devastated. I’ve kept them in their coop since then. Yesterday we let them out in their small yard for the day. I’ve decided no more free-ranging as I can’t bear for them to be killed by predators. We’ve started fencing in a larger yard for them.
My mother always had chickens and she let them free range bringing them into their “stall” in the barn at night. There they were safe with the horses. We did lose a few to predators but we also had a very mean rooster that was very bold. I think that helped. Two of her dear Bantams lived into their teens, if you can believe that. Of course not laying eggs anymore but mom said they had well earned their retirement.
When we move next year I will be getting chickens and I hope to free range them because I know they are happier, healthier and their eggs much more nutritious. However, if I find we lose too many I will look into a tractor. Thank you for all the info. You are such a help!
I’m a 100% free range girl right now, and have very few problems. We keep a family garden on some acreage at my parents, so no complaints there. I have only lost my sweet Harriet to a hawk this past year. My biggest complaint is the poo on my deck. Right now I let my girls (and turkey) out at first light, and shut the coop at night, but i feel that this summer I may place some netting over a larger space in the woods behind the coop, as they really enjoy hanging out by the creek, and in the woods during the day. I’ll let you know how it goes!
Hi Michelle do you have to buy commercial chicken feed or do your chickens just find their food on their own.
I’m curious if anyone knows how far chickens can go before they lose their way home? We have chickens that we let roam, but they tend to move out of the yard and go across the street to a large building with a nice lawn. This is in the evening when no one is around. Are they able to locate home in the evening when it’s time to roost ans when they’re that far away?
It is awesome to have free ranging chickens, but also a burden. Right now our chickens are in the barn due to a bird flu outbreak in the area (we live in Germany), but we will be building a chicken tractor in the next month or so, and use electric poultry netting so we can move them where we need them (like the vegetable garden when we need it cleared).
Now i’m planning to make a freerange farm, so its a very interesting
when was this put up? i wanted to cite it.
About 40 years ago, when our sons were little kids, we lived on a farm in northern Michigan adjacent to the national forest. We bought a couple rabbits and let them “free range” around the house and barn. After a couple months we began to see an interesting variation of rabbits of different colors. I’m sure that they “mixed” with wild rabbits. It didn’t take long and we had some rather large “wild” colorful rabbits in and around our farm. We’re not aware of any negative results except that we heard that a neighbor preferred to hunt “wild” rabbits near and on our farm land.
We’re considering doing this again and this time adding chickens. I visited this discussion to learn from others experience before we try it again, and would like some advice about how to have free range chickens that have some security without our being required to lock them up at night.
Fence the garden and house the hens at night, 90% of your problems are effectively addressed. I have my nest boxes in the secure house as well. Probably the biggest issue is lack of focus. If you have more than one priority, you have no priority. If chickens are your priority you; top predator in the world, superior intellect, opposing thumb etc. , will successfully raise chickens and enjoy fresh eggs and produce. It ain’t easy, it ain’t a union job. Excuses and whining don’t belong and are unacceptable. you can do it if you WILL.
Funny, my neighbors free range chickens poop my my patio. Why they don’t stay over at his house is a mystery (to me). I don’t care one way or the other. The rain usually washes the poop away. I tend to be laid back about stuff. There are bigger things to worry about besides chickens. I wish he wouldn’t shoot the foxes though. The foxes keep the varmint population down.
I have my coop, a small covered run, getting ready to commit to my little yard for them.. but I love to let them out.. even though they like to stay in the covered run at least they have the option.
Are they commercially viable?
What are the illness chances compared to caged chickens
We 100% free range our chickens. 43 of them, plus 2 guinea fowl. We live on 10 acres surrounded by cliffs & timberland. The birds mostly stick around the house, so yes, the front steps are covered in turds and the front “yard” is a monefield. We fenced off a “backyard” for the dog & kids and we fence off our gardens from the birds. Since adding the guineas, we haven’t lost a single bird to hawks. They can outrun raccoons during the day when they can see them. At night, they go back into their coop and the door automatically shuts at sundown, reopens at sunrise. We feed them some scratch & pellets in the morning, but not a lot. I watch them feast on bugs, mice, plants all day. We love our birds & the bounty of eggs they provide, especially when they lay in the coop and I don’t have to hunt for the nests in the woods! ;)
I have 7 acres in the country, so my guys free range during daylight hours and come into the coop at night to roost. I make sure I shut the gate on the coop nightly. I dont garden so the chickens are free to roam the entire 7 acres as they see fit. I have an outside dog that helps keep predators away in the yard and a horse that hates dogs and a donkey in the pastures that also deter predators. I dont have any problems with snakes as the cats love to kill those. Mine dont bother to come up on the porch, so dont have an issue there atm. Im pretty laid back and country born and raised so could care less about chicken poop in the yard. The horse poop piles are much bigger anyway when I turn the horses out in the yard to graze.
I have both guess you would say, Our chickens are in fence from the time they wake up to about 5 in the afternoon. Then they are free range until bed time. We always shut the coops up at night, That way nothing can get to them. Our garden is always their dust bed, and any greens that are there, won’t later. My yard is as green as it can be, thanks to the poop… My porch’s are a broom waiting on them. So needless to say they do not like that. Our love for them grows more each day. It is a sad day if we lose one. We have a different kinds. We are so blessed to have them. Our love of pets for us. Never to be eaten or killed. Just to love and have.
My family loves our chickens. We free range them and surprisingly our dogs get along with them just fine. One of our dogs watches over them. He sits in the middle of the girls when they are grazing and is their “watch dog” for any predators. I do see hawks fly over our property but they won’t dare try to get one of my girls. My kids loves going out and playing with them. The girls loves my boys. They surround them every time they make an appearance in the back yard and my boys will carry them around all over the place. I do have to say the only thing is the poop on my deck. And also they are finding the weirdest places to lay their eggs. They have found my husbands shed a delightful place (I don’t know why) to lay. They will lay anywhere they see fit. Now I have to make my rounds almost in every outbuilding to see if they decided that’s where they see fit.
it was my childhood love and hobby,thanks fornice post,i am indian 60 yers old inthese day planing for goat farming away to delhi, thanks,
Hi. I was wondering if you could provide me with the information where you supplied your chickens from originally? I’m trying to get myself a small homestead as well as work on a project to supply organic food (100% absolutely) to the general public or a school system. (preferably both. if I had to choose one, the latter.) But first things first. I heard the lineage of chickens matter because many of the chickens that are advertised as organic that are actually fed organic 100% are born from chickens that were fed commercial GMO feed, which potentially affects their biology and quality. I was wanting to get some wild game eggs, hatch them and domesticate them since birth, but just wanted to know if your chickens were fed entirely organic feed or absolutely free ranged from the get go. I mean from the hatchery. Like I said, many of the “organic chickens” are from gmo fed parents. Which I personally really don’t like. Honest feedback will be very very much appreciated and thanked. Thanks in advance for your honesty and awesome information. I’m loving your website so far. Really appreciating people like you doing this type of stuff. I love it. Thanks again. ttys.
We started a homestead 7 years ago. At the time we bought our hens from a feed supply store…i couldnt resist them. Since then, we have learned along the way that heritage breeds brought from a farm live longer and are more healthier than the feed supply egg popping hens. I would try posting an ad for what breed you are interested in on social media…or ordering directly from a farm. Best wishes!!
Is it advisable to fence the area intended for free range chicken farming?
I’ve raised one or more kinds of poultry most of my life. Unfortunately, wonderful though it sounds, I’ve found true free ranging to be an unrealizable pipe dream for chickens and ducks. There are just too many predators around. A large fenced-in pasture won’t keep out hawks, which can be the worst. The best I can do and not lose birds in the process is limit my flock size to what can be housed comfortably 24/7 in a coop and run with a top, and maybe let them out for a run while I’m out in the yard. The only poultry that I think work well on a large pasture are geese and turkeys, and even then only when they get large enough to be more than a hawk can tackle. Even guineas, which are supposedly the most alert, eventually get picked off by hawks. I’ve read or heard that Mediterranean breeds like Leghorns or Anconas, especially Leghorn varieties with colored and patterned naturally camouflaged (versus white) plumage, are better at staying alive because they are quick and alert and will run for cover, but unfortunately hawks are pretty determined as well. And ducks are literally “sitting ducks”. They cannot run/waddle fast enough to have a chance of escaping a hawk and they don’t have the instinct or ability to run for cover. My advice: although it sounds good, don’t count on being able to free range your birds and build big enough coops and pens to keep them confined 24/7. And don’t raise any more that can be comfortably and humanely and sanitarily confined with enough space per bird.
I would love to free range, but my property is edged by woods that seem to be a hawk breeding ground. We have so many hawks! My Doberman keeps them at bay, but I have chosen to build a large covered run for more than enough space for the number of chickens I have. They are healthy and happy at this point so I think its the best option for our situation.