Chickens on the Homestead: To Pasture or Free-range?

Reader Contribution by Rebecca Harrold
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Before we had a flock of laying hens, we envisioned free-ranging birds foraging about our property, snatching up insects and living the life of happy chickens. And for the first year, this was the life for our small flock of Chanteclers (10 hens plus a rooster).  

Two years ago, to prepare for the arrival of the Chanteclers, we re-furbished a pre-existing chicken coop by cutting out a chicken door and building a ramp into a 300 square foot run. A shingled roof covers the run and the 2by4 framed walls are wrapped with ½ inch hardware cloth. To guard the birds from digging predators, we also dug a trench and buried the hardware cloth a foot into the ground. When the birds arrived we let them get used to the coop and the run for several days before opening the door briefly in the evening and letting them wander about, but not get so far away that they couldn’t find their way back to the roost. A couple days of this and the birds quickly learned to come back to the coop to roost and spent their days freely foraging about the yard.

Fast-forward two years and we replaced our small Chantecler flock with a larger flock of Red Sex Links (30 hens plus a rooster). Perhaps it’s a combination of different character traits (the Red Sex Links have more spunk and curiosity than the skittish and timid Chanteclers) or simply due to a three-fold increase in the number of birds, but our new chickens soon took advantage of all the benefits free-ranging afforded them. They ranged far and wide and got into the vegetable and flower gardens. We responded by fencing the gardens… but we eventually ran out of fence. Then the rooster started to show aggression. We responded by setting up a pasture outside the run and letting them forage about within a confined space. The set-up worked for a few weeks.

But following a month of pasturing, we began to encounter some challenges that inspired us to find a compromise between pasture and free-range. First, we observed that some of the birds were making gargled clucks and the rooster had stopped crowing. On a hunch, we placed a dish of gravel in the run to provide them with a source of pebbles for their crops. In short order they were back to making typical chicken sounds.

Our next challenge was devising different configurations for the pasture to give the birds new forage while still permitting them access to the stationary coop – our options were quickly exhausted. To compensate for the meager offering of fresh forage we tossed in handfuls of weeds pulled from the gardens, lamb’s quarters plucked from a nearby field, and scraps from the kitchen.

The last challenge, and one that we couldn’t easily overcome on our own, was an increase in mosquitoes. Following a brief lag from the time we began pasturing the chickens, the number of the pesky insects soared. The only real solution was to allow the birds to wander freely again and to feast on the mosquitoes. This rise in mosquitoes, combined with a lack of fresh forage, an immobile coop, and the likelihood of spending more money on feed, necessitated finding a better situation for our flock.

Now, a day in the life of our flock starts with the door (automatically) opening into the run near dawn. Within the run the chickens can feed and drink as they need while they await our arrival. Part of my children’s morning routine involves opening the door of the run and letting the birds into the pasture. Later in the afternoon we let the birds out to free-range. With happy clucks the chickens sprint to the orchard and flower gardens we all keep an eye open for the rooster and are sure to give him a wide berth. At present, this combination of pasture and free-range is working for us and giving our flock a chance to be happy, free-ranging birds once again.

Rebecca Harrold homesteads and homeschools on a 23-acre property in rural Ontario, where she is engaged with all types of wiser living skills. She believes that restoring the land to its healthy, sustainable state will increase its resilience, and in turn, the resilience of the people who depend upon it. Connect with Rebecca at Harrold Country Home and on Instagram. Read all of Rebecca’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS postshere.


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