Free-Range Chickens: healthier Flock, better Eggs
Interested in keeping free range chickens?
All that's required is that you allow your chicken flock some time each
day, usually several hours in the afternoon, to roam freely in a grassy
or wooded area where they can find insects, edible plants, and a place
to scratch around. There are many benefits to allowing free range
chickens, including healthier birds, more nutritiously dense eggs, and
a more frugal enterprise as the hens will require less grain when they
are able to get many of their calories and nutritional needs from
grass, leaves and bugs.
The same basic principles to keeping a chicken flock apply here for grass fed chickens. Birds still need protection from daytime predators, so knowing the environment ‚€“ and usually being in the vicinity while chickens free range ‚€“ is important for your chickens‚€™ welfare. Hens should be ‚€œput up‚€� at night, or locked safely in their house, to keep them from nighttime predators.
Hens will eat less purchased food when foraging in the spring and summer months, but make sure you put out grain and calcium (crushed oyster shells from the feed store) each day to supplement their wild feeding. Also ensure they have a constant supply of fresh water ‚€“ they‚€™ll return to their cage area to drink as needed, unless they find pools or puddles of water in their travels.
Collecting eggs can sometimes be problematic with free ranging hens who are allowed to roam while pullets, or not-yet-laying hens. The solution to this is to keep them confined in a yard with laying boxes or a coop during the morning and early afternoon until they have laid before allowing them to free range for the rest of the day. The other option is to keep them confined in an outdoor chicken run until egg laying is well established in a specific location, such as nesting boxes, before introducing the rest of the yard to them. In this manner, they will return to the pen each day to lay an egg before resuming their free range lifestyle.
You will notice that chicken‚€™s eggs are darker and yolks are firmer when the hens laying them have free access to grass and yard. These eggs are also higher in vitamin D, beta carotene, vitamin E, vitamin A, and omega-3 fatty acids. They also have less cholesterol and less fat than commercial eggs. You can read more about the nutritional difference in free range eggs here. Knowing this, as well as the superior health seen in flocks of free range chickens, can be a big incentive to this method of raising chickens.
As long as you are able to protect your birds from chicken predators, grass fed chickens are ideal, and it's quite fun to watch them scratch throughout the yard or woods. My backyard chicken flock free ranges for about half the day, as we have had only very occasional daytime predators (such as stray dogs, hawks, and tom cats) in the area, and are able to keep the birds safe. They come back into their pen and roost in the coop at night, and we latch shut the coop door after everyone is safely inside. Hens, once in the habit, will come into the coop willingly to lay their eggs, even when they are out free ranging.
Best Coop Plans:
How to Build a Chicken Coop - detailed plans and construction guide for making backyard coops.
These chicken coop plans and building guide are the best I've found, and purchased them myself to build our first coops. There are five different chicken coops included, beginning with the most basic double-story ark and culminating with the largest design, the Chicken Barn with attached screened-in chicken yard. I want to use their plans again for their largest chicken coop, the chicken barn, when we are ready to upsize our chicken flock's habitat. The coop pictured here is a medium-sized all-in-one design.
Recommended Chicken Books:
- Homemade Living - Keeping Chickens: All You Need to Know to Care for a Happy, Healthy Flock by Ashley English
- Storey's Guide - Raising Chickens by Gail Damerow
- Barnyard in Your Backyard - A Beginner's Guide to Raising Chickens, Ducks, Geese, Rabbits, Goats, Sheep, and Cattle
Favorite Chicken Quotes
‚€œ A chicken you eat only once ‚€” eggs a hundred times." ~ Tajikistani Proverb
‚€œ You cannot cook one half of the chicken and leave the other to lay eggs." ~ Sanskrit Proverb
‚€œ You don‚€™t have to kill the chicken to get eggs." ~ French Proverb