As you decide on the best way to raise your chickens, it’s important to get some things straight about free range. The first thing you should know is that the USDA defines “free range” as chickens that have been “allowed access to the outside.”
This is a pretty loose definition, and basically means that any flock that spends a majority of its time out of doors—there can be fencing around the land in an attempt to keep the chickens contained to a specific area—can be considered free range.
So, what are the benefits of this free-range method? Many consumers prefer to buy free-range meat and eggs because it’s thought to be the more humane way to raise poultry. Plus, the meat and eggs are typically of a higher quality than what a mass producer brings to market. The meat and eggs you’ll buy from a free-range farm will be healthier for you and your family, with less fat and calories.
Free ranging your chickens can also give your backyard the added benefit of insect control, so if you have vegetable gardens, you might want to take that into consideration. Plus, all the busy work your flock will do scratching and pecking in the dirt will naturally aerate your soil, ultimately making it healthier.
The Harsh Realities
That said, there are some unique risks to be aware of with free-range flocks. The main thing you need to worry about is a predator. With the lack of shelter in the form of cages and fencing, free-range flocks are at greater risk of attack from predators like owls, hawks, dogs, and coyotes. If you choose to free-range your flocks, you should be prepared to lose the occasional hen to a predator.
There are some steps you can take to prevent any serious harm from coming to your chickens. For example, added cover in the form of plants and trees can prevent overhead attacks from flying predators, and many farmers have reported success after introducing a well-trained livestock guardian dog.
You can also provide moveable coops for your chickens to rest in at night, and run to if they are spooked by something. The bottom line is you will likely have some kind of incident with a predator if you choose to free range your flock, but you’ll just need to be extra careful and prepared.
Overall, free-ranging has proved to be a great method for raising chickens, especially if you’re raising a small flock in your yard. Plus, the added benefit of the healthier meat and eggs and bug-free veggie garden is hard to beat!