So, you’ve decided to raise chickens, but you’re not sure how long you should allow them to free-range. You’re torn between keeping them safe from predators; however, you still want them to enjoy the freedom and the fresh green grass.
How long you allow your chickens to free-range will ultimately reside in the risk vs. reward factor and your living situation.
One to three hours is a good range of time for your chickens to find enough bugs and plants, stretch, and sunbathe before returning to their safe coop.
Maybe you want a balance of both free-range and protection, but you’re unsure how to do this. Continue reading to learn different ways that you can get the best of both worlds without sacrificing the safety of your chickens.
Factors that affect the duration of free-ranging for your chickens
In the grand scheme of things, where you live will be a significant deciding factor on what exactly you can or can’t do with your chickens.
For instance, if you live in a suburb type of neighborhood, you may have policies that restrict you from even having chickens or setting a limit on how many you have exactly.
Aside from that, you may even be restricted to a tiny yard with a tall fence or no fence at all.
Alternatively, if you live out on the quieter side of town with acreage to spare, then your potential to free-range is much higher.
The fact is, if you’re in a more secluded location with fewer rules, then you have more freedom over how many chickens you have, how you can protect them, and what methods to use to contain them.
Rest assured, there are ways you can free-range, even if you have a tiny backyard.
Most of us have jobs, which can make it hard to plan out how we take care of our chickens.
Simply setting time aside to feed them, clean their coop, gather eggs, and water them can seem overwhelming to someone who is extremely busy every day.
If you do happen to be blessed with more time at home, though, you can manage more options with free-ranging your chickens longer because you can simply keep an eye on them every hour.
Let’s face it, if it’s wintertime, then free-ranging for too long becomes way riskier than the reward is worth.
There are less grass, fewer bugs, and your chickens are probably going to stay away from the cold wind anyways. Simply reduce their free-range time to mitigate your risk of loss.
Other types of weather that your chickens shouldn’t free range in is anything that you wouldn’t walk in yourself.
Excessive rain on a younger chicken that is still growing could be the difference between life and death as it makes them too cold during the night.
If you’re expecting bad weather, then it’s best to keep them in their coop where it’s warmer, and they are out of the elements.
What predators are near
Several different kinds of predators live across the world, and many of them populate specific areas.
Knowing what kind of predators live in your state is one of the first steps to being prepared and informed on protecting your chickens.
For example, opossums and coyotes populate all of North America and South America entirely.
It is safe to say that if you live in either one of these regions, then preparing for these chicken-loving predators with things like hardware cloth is a necessary option.
The kind of equipment/coops you have or can afford will also be a factor in how you can protect the chickens and how long you can free-range them.
If you’re willing to pay the hefty price for electric fencing and solar power supply, then electric poultry netting will be a viable option that will enable your chickens to free-range longer.
Alternatively, chicken coops can be built in very cheap yet protective ways that are easy to move, which technically gives a limited free-range feel for your chickens.
That’s right; some breeds are better for free-ranging than others. When it comes to free-ranging, traits that you’re looking for are things like awareness, color, vision, and foraging capabilities.
If you’re going to let your chickens free-range longer, you want every advantage that you can get, including having a chicken that jumps and runs at everything it hears or sees.
You also don’t want your chickens to “stand out” too much. A bright-colored target that is unaware and easy to see is typically a predator’s favorite prey.
Quite bluntly, some chickens have been bred to only produce eggs or meat and are incapable of fending for themselves.
Not only that, but meat and prolific egg layers that have been specifically bred aren’t good foragers as it is.
If you want the most out of your chickens when they free-range, try to go for some of these breeds:
- Leghorns (Non-white preferably)
- Golden Buff
- Plymouth Rock
- Rhode Island Red
- Wyandotte (Non-white preferably)
Benefits of free-ranging your chickens longer
Your chickens are going to be so happy! It is in your chickens’ nature to move around, explore, forage for food, and bathe in the sun.
One of the best things you can do is let them free range as much as possible, even if only for a short period of time.
You will be thankful whenever you’re enjoying those tasty large eggs from the richness of their diet! A chicken with free-ranging is a healthy and happy chicken.
Save money on feed
That’s right, depending on what kind of chickens you have and how long you let them free-range, they can nearly find all their food just by foraging.
Theoretically, you could get away with not feeding your chickens at all if you’re willing to sacrifice a slight drop in their egg production.
If saving money and not buying as much feed intrigues you, here are several common plants that probably grow near you that you can forage yourself and feed to your chickens:
- Bee Balm
Another excellent reason for free-ranging longer is the health reasons alone.
Chickens that are confined to smaller spaces for an extended period tend to get very stressed. This can affect their egg production, the quality of their eggs, and their feather quality.
When chickens aren’t getting a range of bugs and plants in their diet, they will typically produce smaller eggs with lighter colored yolks. The taste and nutrition in these are certainly different.
The production of their eggs and the quality of their feathers are clear indicators of whether your chickens aren’t moving around enough or simply stressed.
Let them free range for a couple of hours per day, and you will surely notice a difference in your chickens’ production and appearance because of what they can forage for and how much they are walking out in the sun.
Free pest control
Every time you see a chicken, it seems to be scratching the ground.
Chickens manage to find the smallest bugs by scratching around, and they eat an astonishing amount of them if they have the time to do so.
The more bugs your chickens eat while free-ranging, then the fewer bugs that are flying around your head or getting into your garden or flower bed.
Not only do chickens eat a lot of bugs, but they eat bugs that we typically don’t want around us at all, such as these:
- Ticks, ticks, ticks, and yes, more ticks!
The quality of an egg heavily relies on the health of the hen that lays it.
If your chicken is stressed, not getting adequate space, and only being fed processed grains, then her eggs aren’t what they could be.
If you compare an egg laid by a hen that free ranges all day long to a hen that is locked up every single hour of every day, you will notice a huge difference in the size of the egg, the density of the shell, and the color of the yolk.
The fact is, chickens can’t properly break down and process the grains that we feed them, especially if they aren’t getting to move around and properly digest everything.
Chickens that get to free-range longer are getting adequate exercise, and they have access to nutritious bugs and plants that they are designed to break down. This will show immediately in the quality of their eggs.
Relaxing and fun
If all the benefits mentioned so far weren’t enough already, chickens are simply relaxing to watch while they free range.
They will slowly make their way all over the yard or pasture, finding every little bug and chasing each other over the smallest blade of grass.
Grab a glass of tea, sit outside in the sun, and enjoy the little things.
How to safely free-range your chickens for a longer duration
Electric poultry netting
Electric poultry netting is an excellent option for containing your chickens and protecting them from predators while they free range.
The netting is also extremely easy to move so that the chickens can access other parts of the yard or pasture. All you need is a strand of the netting and a power source which often come in kits.
Implementing this method may require you to clip your chickens’ wings so they can’t fly out of the netting.
Mobile chicken tractor/coop
Mobile chicken tractors have become a popular implementation by large-scale farmers because of their versatility.
A mobile chicken tractor simply consists of a chicken coop that is typically built with light material and is usually fixed with a set of wheels.
Using this kind of setup allows you to keep them protected and easily move your chickens to new sections of your pasture or yard every few days. (How often you move them will depend on how many chickens you have in the coop.)
If you utilize this method, remember chickens need roughly 2-4 sq ft per chicken before they start getting too stressed.
Get a dog or goose
If you can’t be at home with your chickens, there is a comfort that comes with knowing that your chickens are being watched and protected by one of your other animals.
Having a guardian animal to look after your chickens can help extend their free-range time since they are a deterrent for any potential predators nearby.
Specific breeds of dogs are notorious for being protective over your flock and will gladly take it upon themselves to look out for them.
You can even integrate a goose into your flock. Have you seen geese chase humans in videos?
Yes, they can be somewhat aggressive, but they are also protective and will defend your chickens from any predators. Geese will also thank you with very large eggs that are excellent for baking!
Implement all the above three
If you can afford it and have enough yard/pasture, you could always combine electric netting with a mobile chicken tractor inside being protected by a goose.
This will be your most ideal option for maximized free-ranging if it suits your lifestyle, location, and budget.
What if you can’t use a mobile free-ranging solution?
Limited supervised free-range
You can let your chickens out of their coop to free-range for 1-2 hours when the sun is fully up or before it goes down.
Considering chickens are extremely cautious as it is, and if you have a good free-ranging breed, as mentioned before, your chickens most likely won’t stray too far from their coop within their limited duration.
To help train your chickens to return to their coop at the end of their free-ranging, use chicken feed or treats to lure them back. (Preferably around the same time every day if possible)
Train them to return to their coop
Use feed/treats to attract them to certain boundaries during free-ranging. This will help get them back into their coop later.
Utilize a routine-based training method to get them back to their coop with feed/treats.
Disadvantages of free-ranging your chickens for too long
Exposure to predators
The obvious downside is the danger. The longer your chickens are out, the more they are susceptible to predator attack. This is the window of availability, and good predators tend to be very patient.
Harder to find eggs
If you have good nests in place that are off the ground and secluded, then you may not have to worry about this.
But don’t be surprised if you find an egg or two around the yard/pasture. It can and probably will happen.
Chickens can be messy.
Chickens will scratch any patch of grass and any bit of dirt, looking for bugs.
They will also make bowel movements everywhere. Chickens don’t care if it’s your walkway, your driveway, or your sandbox. A chicken uses the restroom wherever it is at that moment.
They will find your garden.
Chickens love plants, and this includes your fruits and vegetables.
If you aren’t protecting your garden or flower bed, then it is a very safe bet to say they are going to find them, and they are going to enjoy your garden’s surplus of plants and bugs.