To free range or not to free range – for folks with a flock, that is the question. Five years of experience raising free-range chickens on my organic farm, Mama Tierra, in Bowdoin, Maine, has led to some useful, albeit hard-won, insights. I did some homework and spoke to other flock owners before undertaking this adventure, but mostly I followed the “Just Lay It” approach and learned by doing. It’s a tried-and-true New Englander strategy that, for better and sometimes worse, can have a long, mild – yet consistent – learning curve.
Before deciding to liberate your fowl to freely follow their bliss, here are a few things to consider for a successful free-range endeavor. First, let’s be clear about what constitutes “free-range.” It is a fallacy to qualify free-range eggs as those produced by hens raised outdoors or that have daily access to the outdoors. This definition is so vague that it can include hens that might only access the same “outdoor” yard day in and day out. Without specifying the size of the space, this may also mean that, within a matter of weeks, the hens are ranging only in grazed-down dirt and their own waste.
The real definition of free-range means allowing the chickens to be truly free to wander where their little hen hearts desire. Let the hens go, and watch where they head. With eyes on greener pastures, my hen friends would come hopping out the door and head far afield for green grasses and into woodlands to follow their instincts to scratch and forage. However, the first stop was undoubtedly the compost pile to check out what kind of chicken dumpster-diving feast might be theirs for the taking.
One of the first considerations for raising free-range chickens is allowing access to tender green pasture for all birds older than 3 or 4 weeks. They need to be contained and protected at this stage, but putting birds on pasture as chicks lowers the cost of their raising by reducing the amount of store-bought feed consumed. It also encourages the birds’ natural tendency to begin to graze. By eating insects and scratching and pecking in the soil, chickens access protein and many necessary minerals. Time spent on the pasture as pullets yields hardy hens that produce high-quality eggs consistently the following winter when they begin to lay.
At this early stage of the chick’s life, it is important to provide adequate shelter, fencing and protection from both predators and the elements. Consider sowing rye in autumn or a thick early spring seeding of oats to have a well-established and supportive pasture ready for chicks hatched in the spring. Move the poultry shelter often to give the flock clean ground and fresh greens. It is surprising how even a small flock of fledglings can quickly consume every tasty morsel they can get their beaks on.
To give an idea, an acre is an adequate supply of pasture for 200 adult birds or 300 chicks. Scale downwards according to the size of your smaller flock.
Another benefit of contained ranging is that it is a great way to acclimate the birds to their roosting territory. If possible, build the fenced-in pasture in a manner that allows access to the coop and roosts. This way the birds learn at a young age how to recognize their home base, while you save the time and money necessary to create a separate dwelling. I even built the chicks a small version of roosts and put it out in the range yard for them to begin to practice their perch. They took to it right away and gradually began to experiment with the higher roosts in the coop on their own. A fresh supply of water is crucial, and unless your land has a natural source for clean, moving water, this will be on your checklist to maintain flock health.
The food your birds consume is directly responsible for the quality of their eggs or meat; it is, therefore, crucial to start them off right on a true free-range chicken’s natural diet. A variety of greens, plants, worms and insects is enhanced by direct exposure to the sun, dirt and fresh air. These are the secret ingredients in the delicious eggs laid by hens lucky enough to range. After they’ve had their fill, they’ll scope out an inviting sunny patch of dry dirt and take a bath to keep their feathers healthy and clean.
Now, let’s turn to a few of the more complicated aspects of letting the flock out to begin to roam on their own. In my experience, even though my 13 acres in rural mid-coast Maine abuts about 2,000 acres of conservation land, the No. 1 predator I had to be aware of was a Labrador Retriever. In five years, I lost only one bird and had two others come under attack. The culprit in each instance: my neighbor’s dog.
Despite leash laws at both the state and town level, the off-leash dog not under the owner’s vocal command came into my yard and got the birds. This is an important potential predator to put into your mix when considering your flock’s safety. How many dogs live nearby and have access to your land? Can you speak to your neighbors and ask for cooperation? You may want to erect a fence if there is a potential dog menace.
Other threats might come from above, so be watchful for passing raptors and wide-open spaces that could allow them to swoop in for take-out chicken. Once the flock matures, they seem able to sense when to take shelter if a predator is circling.
Because the girls love to bathe daily, your flower and vegetable gardens may become tantalizing venues for their dirt lounge. This can prove to be a major problem both for health risks as well as aesthetic disruptions. When an ideal dirt locale is identified by one hen, the others will follow, which can lead to having to fence in the flowers. If you have several beds like we do, this can get a bit pricey.
Fortunately, hens are creatures of the edge, meaning they also love woodlands and easily relocate themselves under evergreens where the dirt tends to be dry and yielding. My flock has a favorite location they visit for their daily dust bath before basking in the sun.
For me, there was never a question about my hens finding a home on the range. I knew they’d lead a happier, healthier life when given the choice to follow their own nature. It only follows that this lifestyle leads to delicious, nutritious “eggs-cellent” eggs.
Lisa V. Blake cofounded Mama Tierra Farm in Bowdoin, Maine, which is dedicated to biodynamic, organic living in harmony with all of nature, friend and fowl alike.