Raising Free-Range Chickens

A homestead handbook for novice poultry keepers. Details on raising free-range chickens naturally and selling eggs.


| July/August 1984



088-070-01i2

Wild hen and day-old chicks.


ILLUSTRATION: MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF

The chickens turn out to forage for themselves on our place. They don't run wild all over, you understand: A snug henhouse lean-to along the outside wall of the horse's barn stall lets the flock come home to roost at night and to shelter through a heavy rain. During our hard New England winters, the flock is forced to coop up and live on dry stores (homegrown, whenever practical), like the rest of us. But from the first warm days of March till the snow returns in earnest late the next December, our chickens range—free as a bird, you might say—to work for their own supper. Cash sale or barter of extra eggs and an occasional dressed capon more than pay for what feed and equipment needs buying, so the poultry products our family enjoys are free for the time spent looking after the flock—perhaps half an hour a week, egg collecting included (once the operation is up and going on its own).

There's nothing new about raising free-range poultry, of course. It used to be done that way all over. A natural part of every old-time farmstead was a half-wild flock of chickens scratching around the barnyard and fields after bugs, native seeds and berries, plus whatever feed grain got past (or passed through) the larger farm animals.

Today, though, when you set out to raise your own chickens, you'll find that a lot of published information tries to get you into factory-style production, just on a small scale. Guess the Aggy-school-trained experts don't know any different. So they urge you to set up a miniature version of a commercial "broiler factory"—wire mesh cages tiered up one on top of the other—in your cellar. You supply medicated water and pre-ground mash, then execute the inmates after eight weeks in solitary, during which time they don't get to scratch in the dirt or see the sun or engage in what passes for love 'n' marriage in Chickenland. I decided early on that I wouldn't raise plastic chickens on my own place, and you don't have to either. Here's how to resurrect those fine old-time skills and raise egg-and-meat birds as close to nature's way as makes practical sense anymore.

Prospecting Your Land  

The idea is to convince your birds to get out into the country and eat as much as they can for free You don't need a lot of land; a flock can find a whole bunch of bugs and seeds on an acre or two. The more the better, of course, and our flock has several square miles of wild mountain to wander over, if they want. However, they restrict most of their travels to the orchard and woods that abut the henhouse side of the barn, as well as the barnyard and a couple of pastures in the other direction. The flock patrols perhaps five acres in all, seldom going much over 100 meters from the house. I can't prove it, but I would think that this is close to the natural territorial limit for a flock of a dozen or two domestic chickens.

Before field running your own chickens, be sure that quail, pheasant, turkeys, grouse, prairie chickens—or any other member of the chicken's avian family of gallinaceous birds—live wild in the area, or did before civilization struck. The Galliformes comprise an order of largely dry-ground-feeding birds; we call the barnyard birds' typical food gathering habit scratching, If any Galliformes from quail to turkey size are indigenous to your area, chickens ought to find a good supply of native food in your woods, too. If all you have in the way of local birds are pigeons and English sparrows, though, you'd best wait till you can get farther out into God's own country. Chickens will eat most anything that grows, but not much grows on asphalt.

Domestic Chickens 

Bear in mind that, kin to native quail and grouse or not, a domestic chicken is about as well designed for a life of hardy self-reliance in the wild as a gorgeous, doe-eyed jersey cow. Both have been hand bred by humans for aeons to convert ground corn into "people food," not to fight the elements or live on bugs and weed seed in a lean 'n' mean existence.

linda coburn benedick
11/25/2012 7:34:16 PM

ldbenedick@yahoo.com Help I am going to have to get rid of my free range chickens as I cannot keep them out of my flower beds wire fencing around my plants has not helped they dig it up.


larry miller
11/4/2012 11:05:58 PM

I have 14 chickens (4 1/2 months old) and 4 @ 10 weeks. Question is 2 old ones are bantam roosters and would like to know if they can fertilize standard breeds like rhode island reds?


wendylynne
5/19/2011 1:57:26 PM

Hi.. I have 10 Chickens. They are about 6-7 weeks old now. My question is if I let them out of their fenced in area thats not very large, will they leave and not come back? We have about 3 acres in our back yard and woods behind that.. it's not fenced in. Will they leave.. get lost? my goal is only free range chickens.


tmike_2
3/5/2010 11:21:51 AM

Susan, I know this is a year late, but foraging for eggs will not be very productive, efficient, or fun for long. Once you crack that first rotten stinkin' egg on your frying pan you'll start thinking about a coop. --- Here is how I solved your problems -- for myself. I didn't want to have to worry about locking the chickens up every night, and I wanted them to be free range(as much as possible). So I cut a hole 3 feet x 6 feet in the side of the coop (half that size would have been fine). And Its 5 feet off the ground. Around the hole I screwed sheet metal from the ground up and 2 feet on the sides -- No 'coon can climb in that. My chickens have a comfy home, nice nesting boxes, and a way to enter at dusk and leave in the morning. And without any intervention from me or worry of predators. All I and my wife do is gather their eggs in the early afternoon(if possible), That gives them plenty time to get their business done. We also toss some scratch out and/or leave some pellets out for them if we think they need it. -- And we have a kiddy pool (outside of the coop) that we keep full of water and a 5 gallon water feeder that they and the bees share . Our chickens are very healthy and very happy. --we now have 30 Rhode Island Red/leghorn/Americana Mutts, but I'm going to butcher 6 of the cockerels (young roosters). We have to many. They are about 6 months old and causing problems for our sweet little hens. Hope this helps -- TMike PS- we have a - 90% plus - survival rate when we allow the mommas to be mommas (once a year). We move the hatchlings after a few days to a special coop thats heated, dry, has a concrete floor and small wood chips for litter. It also has graduated roosting boards.


tmike_2
3/5/2010 11:17:13 AM

Susan, I know this is a year late, but foraging for eggs will not be very productive, efficient, or fun for long. Once you crack that first rotten stinkin' egg on your frying pan you'll start thinking about a coop. --- Here is how I solved your problems -- for myself. I didn't want to have to worry about locking the chickens up every night, and I wanted them to be free range(as much as possible). So I cut a hole 3 feet x 6 feet in the side of the coop (half that size would have been fine). And Its 5 feet off the ground. Around the hole I screwed sheet metal from the ground up and 2 feet on the sides -- No 'coon can climb in that. My chickens have a comfy home, nice nesting boxes, and a way to enter at dusk and leave in the morning. And without any intervention from me or worry of predators. All I and my wife do is gather their eggs in the early afternoon(if possible), That gives them plenty time to get their business done. We also toss some scratch out and/or leave some pellets out for them if we think they need it. -- And we have a kiddy pool (outside of the coop) that we keep full of water and a 5 gallon water feeder that they and the bees share . Our chickens are very healthy and very happy. --we now have 30 Rhode Island Red/leghorn/Americana Mutts, but I'm going to butcher 6 of the cockerels (young roosters). We have to many. They are about 6 months old and causing problems for our sweet little hens. Hope this helps -- TMike PS- we have a - 90% plus - survival rate when we allow the mommas to be mommas (once a year). We move the hatchlings after a few days to a special coop thats heated, dry, has a concrete floor and small wood chips for litter. It also has graduated roosting boards.


susan_7
12/31/2008 4:26:54 AM

Does anyone know about raising free range chickens without a coop? We want them to survive with out a coop.. and would enjoy hunting for any eggs that they might lay in their favourite spots. We have had a coop before and (a) do not need it because of the remote location from other houses; (b) foxes have found their way in on other occassion; and (c) there are the odd times when we are not around at precisely sunset to shut them in. The best solution appears to be getting them used to the rough area, and then letting them perch in the numerous trees etc. that are there. They are after all jungle birds arent they?


sonya_5
4/20/2007 1:04:08 PM

Great site. Is there any way we can get info mailed to us? Mother Responds: You can send this link by email.


michelle_40
4/17/2007 2:16:26 PM

My neighbor has free range chickens that frequently come onto our property as well as the other 2 neighbors' property. None of our 2 acre lots are fenced and personally I don't mind the feathered visitors since they tended to stay at the back of the property. However, starting last year and now continuing this year, they have taken to coming up to my deck and around the front of my house to dig up my mulched flower beds. I have already had to move my tomato garden inside my child's play area to protect them, but I don't feel that 4 chickens should dictate how I landscape my yard. I gave up landscaping in the back thinking they would hang out back there, but now that they are venturing up to the house I'm not sure how to prevent them from getting at my flowers. I do not want to put chicken wire around my gardens, is there anything else I can try? I've heard that some animals are turned off from digging if you bury chicken wire in the ground, will that work for chickens? Are there any products I could purchase that may help? I don't want to have to ask the neighbor to put the chickens in their coop, I want them to have a good life but I also don't want to spend my time, energy and money to continually replace and repair the gardens they destroy. If anyone has any suggestions could you please email me at the above address. Thank you!






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