Living Off Grid – Free Range Chickens?

Reader Contribution by Ed Essex
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So you want to have fresh eggs and the more adventurous of
you might even think you want fresh meat! Of course, to be totally in vogue
these are going to have to be free range chickens or it’s just not cool.
Like most things there is another side to the story. This blog is about some of
the less attractive side of free range chickens.

We currently have 15 free range chickens, all different
varieties. Buff Orpingtons, Dominique’s, and Rhode Island Reds and some kind of
cross in between those three breeds. We don’t just let them out in a tiny pen
for an hour a day to qualify them as “free range” like so many commercial
growers do. We let our chickens out of the coop at first light and they go back
in at dusk. All day long they have the full run of our 40 acre property.

While most people might think that is the ultimate in
chicken raising it isn’t all that clean of an issue. There are some problems
that you should consider before you turn the little ones loose to do as they
please.

This summer Laurie worked very hard to put a little flower
bed next to our main entry door. She dug up local plants to display and even shopped
around the woods for some decorative wood to put in the bed. She then wrapped
the whole thing in chicken wire to keep the dog, chickens, and cats out to give
the new plants a chance to get rooted and grow.
The fence was unsightly and we finally took it down last week. Within three
days the chickens had destroyed the planter, turning it into a chicken spa to
relax out of the sun and bath in its fine soil. I’ve shooed them and even
sprayed them with water but they keep coming back.

One of my jobs outside is to keep all of our concrete slabs
clean which I think helps keep the inside of the house clean. It was all easy
enough to do until we got free range chickens. Now I have to scrape the
concrete before I sweep it and even that doesn’t erase all of the little round
markings. That also goes for anything outside they might sit or roost on during
the day.

If that isn’t enough to make you question the whole free
range concept let me add one more.  Free
ranging chickens are going to look really good to a variety of predators. This
past year we have had to deal with coyotes, weasels, and too many hawks to list.

Thanks to our Anatolian Shepherd livestock guardian dog and me we still have
all 15 chickens but only just barely. The dog has chased coyotes, the weasel,
and at least one hawk off the property. The hawk was 3′ above one of the
chickens when the dog just exploded into action and chased it away. I took care
of the rest. At times it seemed like a full time job, like when the family of
hawks came to visit – mom, dad, and baby hawk. They were trying to teach the
little one how to hunt and using our chickens to do it with.

They do keep the bugs down. We literally don’t have
grasshoppers in our immediate area anymore and I have to admit our chickens
seem to be very happy. They also can be very entertaining. All that being said
they are fodder for any and all predators and very messy to boot.

We managed to keep our chickens safe this year but how are
you going to feel if you let one predator slip in and steal one of your little
bug pecking munchkins? Is it really in their best interest to free range if it
also exposes them to being killed by any number of different predators? I’ll
leave that up to you to decide. I just want you to be able to make an informed
decision.

We’re still free ranging here but I am considering a large pen with a wire lid
on it for the future. The jury is still out. One thing that is encouraging is
that with each generation of new ones they seem to be getting wilder and more
wary than the original chickens we started with. Something else to consider.

Ed and Laurie Essex live off grid in
the Okanogan Highlands of Washington State where they operate their website goodideasforlife.com  and offgridworks.com