Other than a good dust bath, there is no other place that a chicken would rather be than free-ranging about their environment. Chickens love to scratch in the dirt. They love to discover bugs, worms and tasty grubs as they explore their surroundings. However, most folks never free-range due to the risk of predators. Those that allow their chickens to roam freely on their property accept and understand the risk of losing members of their flock from time to time. This was not an option for me nor was it a risk that I felt comfortable with. One of the best solutions that I came up with three years ago was supervised free ranging. Supervised free-ranging allows your flock to be out and about in the yard as your presence keeps predators away.
Some Benefits of Free Ranging
Better tasting eggs
Eggs with more nutritional value
Healthier, happier Hens
Prevention of bad habits such as feather picking
Prevention of boredom
Decrease in the amount of feed your flock consumes
Garden benefits include pest control, soil aeration, composting and weeding
Potential Daytime Predators of Free-Ranging Flocks
Hawks/Birds of Prey
How To Supervise Free-Ranging
1. The best hours for supervised free ranging are just prior to dusk. This way, the chickens should automatically return to their coop/run as the daylight fades. Trust me, you never want to chase a chicken. Also, day time predators are returning home for their evening rest and the nocturnal predators are just beginning to awaken. This is a transition time for them.
2. With a new flock, do not free-range until they have become acclimated to their coop and surroundings.
3. Leave the door to the run open during free-ranging. Some chickens will prefer to stay in the coop and run area. My littlest Silkie, Fifi, who is at the bottom of the pecking order, never free-ranges. Instead, she likes to have the "run of the house" while the others are out. Others will return to lay their eggs or take a sip of water. It also allows the chickens access to their coop and run as they return home from free-ranging for the evening.
4. Train your chickens to know that you are in charge. Interestingly, the flock will free-range close to the head hen or rooster. Either one will lead the flock to where they free-range. Some breeds like to free-range farther from the coop while other breeds, like the Australorp, tend to stay close to home.
5. Learn how to do the "alert/warning" flock call. It sounds like a low rolling growl. I do this if I see any predators near, such as hawks. The chickens will respond to your alert.
6. Never stray far from your free-ranging flock. Remember, you are their protector. Your job is to continually survey the skies and land for any potential danger. Leaving your flock even for a few minutes can make them vulnerable.
7. Keep some treats in your pocket. This is a very useful tool in training chickens to avoid certain areas of the yard, have them follow you and lure them back into the safety of their coop and run.
8. Remember to do a head count after everyone has returned in from free-ranging before you lock up the coop.
9. Develop a free-ranging habit/pattern and your flock will become accustomed to the routine. For example, my girls always free range while I clean the coop. They are also used to free-ranging in the gardens when I am working in the yard. I lure them to the area where I am working with a tiny bit of scratch and treats.
10. Check the foot pads of your free-ranging chickens regularly for any injuries such as bumblefoot.
The way you chose to manage your flock is a personal decision. There are many ways to raise chickens. I am proud to say that there is a compromise when it comes to free-ranging. Supervising free-ranging does minimize the risk of harm coming to your flock. I am happy to share that many of those folks who were initially against free-ranging have tried my techniques and they too have become not only believers but advocates of supervised free-ranging.
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