The Benefits of Raising Free-Range Chickens

Raising free-range chickens gives the birds a higher quality of life and provides you with better meat.

| March/April 2011

  • Rooster on the Lookout
    This rooster keeps a watchful eye, while the hens enjoy some free-range forage. Helwich
  • Free-Range Hen and Chicks
    A Golden Laced Wyandotte chicken takes her brood out foraging.
  • Free-Range Flock of Hens
    This hen party is not in search of tea and cakes, but insects and leftovers. Eaves
  • Colorful Rooster
    A high-stepping rooster is ready to lead his ladies out in style. Dabell
  • Rooster and the Watering Can
    Chickens can be both an asset and enemy to your garden as they root out pests for a tasty treat. Gehrig

  • Rooster on the Lookout
  • Free-Range Hen and Chicks
  • Free-Range Flock of Hens
  • Colorful Rooster
  • Rooster and the Watering Can

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. 

First step

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.

6/8/2015 6:45:43 PM

Also, regarding dogs; we have two great Pyrenees and they help protect the chickens once trained that NO they may not chase the chickens (hardest during that first "puppy year"). However, neighbors dogs and strays are a different story. I came home from town one day to find 7 dead chickens scattered all over about 4 acres. We only had one dog at the time and she was locked in with the goats. Now that our male is full grown and has full, free run of all 40 acres, we have not lost anymore chickens. Our policy is that ANY dog chasing livestock will be shot immediately, including our own. Once they start it- there is no stopping them and you will lose everything you own.

6/8/2015 6:37:22 PM

Rob, we have cats and free range chickens. The chickens must be protected until they are fully feathered and at least half the size of the cats. We even have some Bantams and the cats simply do not bother them once they are big enough to defend themselves.

6/8/2015 8:56:14 AM

But what do you do in the high desert? I live in the sandhills of Corrales, NM-not the green zone along the Rio. That is a mile east down a long dirt road. I have sagebrush, a nasty type of spurge that produces goatheads (very thorny seeds-OUCH!), and a tall weed with yellow flowers that stick to your pants when you walk by. That is it. I don't have cactus and no trees. I rent a half an acre and have a large garden. To try to grow grass I would have to bring in tons of topsoil. I am not going to do that for some one else's yard. And suggestions?

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