One of the biggest things to consider when deciding to have chickens is how (or if) you’re going to contain them. If you’re thinking about letting your flock free-range, consider the advantages and disadvantages before bringing those cute chicks home from the feed store or buying pullets from the guy up the street.
Chickens that are allowed the run of the place rarely get bored, as they’re allowed to do what chickens do best – scratch for their feed. Pecking and scratching keeps them busy as well as well-fed. Pesky insects are a delicacy to chickens, and are a perfectly natural chicken feed. Allowing your flock to seek out foodstuffs from their surroundings is not only promoting good nutrition, but it will also save you a little chicken feed on, well, chicken feed.
Note: Wherever your flock is allowed to roam, make sure that there are no toxic weed killers or fertilizers anywhere that your chickens will have access to.
Chickens can destroy a weed patch while searching for a treat, but they can also destroy a garden if you’re not careful. Even if you’re not worried about your own plants, your neighbor might have something that your chickens find tasty, so being a good neighbor might mean confining your chickens to your property. Of course, if you’re going to share fresh eggs with your neighbors, they might not mind quite as much.
Chickens generally don’t venture far from home, but that doesn’t mean they won’t wander off on occasion. Since there is no dirt to scratch in on a paved surface, they’ll rarely cross the road, but that doesn’t mean an inquisitive youngster won’t ever make the attempt. If you live in a high-traffic area, it’s probably best to have some sort of fencing between your yard and the road.
Predators can be a big problem for free range chickens. In rural settings, you might have fox or coyotes looking for a meal, and hawks and other birds of prey think nothing of swooping down to snatch up a young chicken. Suburban chicken farmers aren’t exempt, as domesticated dogs and cats can kill off a flock if the prey drive sets in.
And then there’s chicken poop. Chickens can’t be potty trained, and they will poop wherever and whenever they want. That nice patio set you just bought? It will end up getting pooped on as chickens hop up to check it out. If your family doesn’t want to eat off a picnic table that doubled as a roost for your hens, then it’s best that you separate them somehow.
What worked best for me was a modified free-range, where I fenced my back yard and let my chickens wander at will within the entire space. I had extra stakes and welded-wire fencing available that I could put up temporarily if I needed to contain them in a smaller area, but they were happiest when they were allowed to roam. Surprisingly, even though I live out in the sticks, I’ve never had a problem with predators harming my flock, perhaps because of the presence of my dogs (that actually enjoyed playing with the chickens). The chickens were never far from either the coop or a large, dense bush that they could duck into for cover if need be, though.
What’s right for one chicken farmer won’t be suitable for all scenarios, so put some thought into your own situation, layout of the land, etc. Make choices that will be appropriate to protect your flock from the elements, from predators, and that will keep your family and neighbors happy.
More from Marie Anne:
Moving Baby Chicks Outside in the Spring
Straight Poop on Keeping Backyard Chickens
Will My Dog Eat My Chickens?