At some point every chicken keeper asks themselves, “Should I free range my chickens?” The answer is a tough one, and is totally subjective to your personal situation.
Choosing whether or not to free range chickens is a hot button issue, most people feel very strongly one way or the other. We’re hoping this article will be a help to those of you who are on the fence and need a nudge either way.
There are many benefits to free ranging, but there are just as many drawbacks. The risk vs reward is almost equal, which makes this decision that much harder. We wanted to take the opportunity to weight the pros and cons of free ranging chickens so you can make the best decision for you and your flock.
We want to end on a good note today, so we’ll be covering all the downsides to free ranging chickens first!
Should I Free Range My Chickens?
Cons to Free Ranging your Chickens:
While we do thoroughly believe that free ranging is the best option for our flock, we acknowledge that there are very real risks to free ranging chickens. Many chicken keepers see these risks and decide against free ranging and that’s perfectly okay. You need to do what’s right for your chickens!
Here are the biggest reasons not to free range your chickens.
1. Predator attacks
If you free range your flock for long enough, its inevitable that they will encounter predators. Predators lurk everywhere, they dwell in cities just as much as in the countryside. When your chickens are out free ranging, it can be really difficult to protect them from other animals that want nothing more than to eat them.
2. Getting Lost
While it doesn’t happen often, occasionally a free ranging chicken just won’t come home at the end of the day. Chickens have an amazing sense of direction and know that their coop is a safe place to return to, but sometimes they just don’t.
We’ve only lost one bird, and it was more our fault than hers. We introduced a new batch of chickens to our flock, then several weeks later let them all out to free range together. One of the new birds just never came back to the coop. She may have been eaten by a predator, but it’s more likely that she just wandered too far away and couldn’t find her way back.
This is one of the sad risks you take when you choose to free range your birds.
3. Annoying the Neighbors
Another risk you take when free ranging your chickens is bothering your neighbors. It’s hard to believe, but the people living around you might not love chickens as much as you do. They may not appreciate your chickens hanging out on their property and rifling through their garden while pooping everywhere.
Be sure to speak to your neighbors frequently about the chickens, and be respectful of their property. Find a way to fence in your birds if you live close to neighbors, or supervise their free range time so you can keep them on your property.
4. Destroying the Garden
Speaking of rifling through the garden, another big downside to free ranging chickens is their destructive habits in the garden. If you don’t have any gardens, you can skip right ahead to the next one, but if you have any plants that you hold dear, take heed.
Chickens love digging in the dirt. They adore scratching up plants in the constant search for bugs and seeds. Sometimes chickens will even eat the plants in your garden, putting a quick end to all your hard work.
That’s not to say you can’t have chickens and a garden. We’ve written a post on the topic and there are even a few books on the topic, like Free-Range Chicken Gardens and Gardening with Chickens to help you keep the peace between your birds and your plants.
5. Getting hit by cars
This one depends entirely on your individual situation. If your chickens free range in a yard that’s fenced in, there’s little chance of them getting hit by cars. However, free ranging your flock in an area close to the road poses a real risk to your chickens. Do you know why the chicken really crossed the road? To eat what was on the other side! Chickens have no regard for traffic, they won’t respect the cars barreling by, and it’s very likely they will get hit.
Pros to Free Ranging your Chickens:
1. Save money on chicken feed
When chickens are let out to free range on a daily basis, they mostly spend their time foraging for food. A free ranging flock will help themselves to plants, seeds, insects, and small animals. This free source of chicken feed can drastically cut down on the feed bill. Chickens that are allowed out to free range can forage for more than 50% of their daily feed, depending on how much space they have to roam. Imagine cutting your feed bill by at least half?! That’s a really easy way to save money raising chickens.
2. Easy balanced nutrition
As we said in the last point, free ranging chickens find a lot of their own food. Lucky for you, most of this food is actually quite good for them! A free range chicken can find plentiful sources of high quality nutrients in the wild. The nutrition that comes from foraging for weeds, fruit, seeds, bugs, and rodents can’t easily be duplicated inside the coop. There’s no doubt that supplemental forage packs a nutrition punch that just can’t be found in commercial chicken feed.
If you’re dead set on keeping your chicken flock indoors, you can still provide them with some of the nutrition benefits of free ranging by bringing the forage to them. You can pull weeds from the yard and stack them in a corner of the chicken run. The chickens will not only enjoy eating the weeds, they’ll also attract insects for your flock to munch on!
3. Good exercise
Chicken flocks that are let out to free range tend to get more exercise than flocks that spend all their time indoors. Chickens on the range enjoy the opportunity to literally spread their wings and run, fly and jump to their hearts content.
4. Happiness and well being of your flock
As I said in the previous point, watching your chickens come running full tilt out of the coop, flapping their wings, squawking, and hopping will make you squeal with joy. The chickens will be squealing with joy too. There’s no mistaking their happiness at being let out into the world to explore, stretch their legs, and roll around in the dirt.
Chickens need entertainment and a change of scenery just as much as people do. You can provide entertainment inside the coop with chicken toys and chicken treats, but free ranging is an easy and free way to ensure the happiness of your flock.
5. Pest control
Chickens are connoisseurs of all things hairy, long legged, and creepy. Insects are at the top of their favorite food list. Chickens eat all sorts of bugs, including those that you’d rather not have on your property such as fleas and ticks. Chickens have been known to make a noticeable dent in pest populations when they’re allowed out to free range. Eating bugs is really the best free range activity because it benefits everyone… except maybe the bug!
Deciding whether or not to free range your flock is a big choice, and you’ll need to weigh the risk and rewards before choosing. While we believe free ranging our chickens is the best way for them to live happy, healthy lives, we can also understand that every chicken keeper and every situation is different. You need to make the best decision for your circumstances, and don’t let anyone tell you any different.
We hope this article has helped you to decide whether or not to free range your chickens. As always, if you have any questions or comments, we’d love to hear them down below! We do our best to respond to each and every one.