Is Free-Ranging the Best Option for Your Flock?

There are many pros and cons for small-scale poultry producers to weigh when considering whether or not they should have free-range chickens.

| July 5, 2013

  • When deciding whether or not your chickens can free-range, you should study the benefits and dangers of free-ranging and decide what will work best for your particular flock. There is no “one size fits all” method.
    Photo by Fotolia/spirenko

Reposted with permission from BackYard Chickens.

Often one of the first things a new chicken owner wants to do is let the flock out to free-range.  One of the joys of owning chickens is watching "chicken TV" as they interact with each other, you, and their environment.  Free-ranging provides a larger and more varied environment for your chickens. Before free-ranging your chickens, however, there are some steps you should take to make sure your flock gains the most benefits from free-ranging, that they remain safe, and that they return to the safety of the coop at night.  One of the jobs of responsible animal husbandry (taking care of animals used for food or products), is to provide them with a safe environment. There is no way to ensure 100 percent safety, but there are ways to make their free-ranging as safe as possible.

First, let’s define free-ranging. It does NOT mean turning your chickens loose outside and letting them fend for themselves.  If you look at USDA regulations, you’ll find that in order for poultry producers to label their chickens as free-range (or free-roam) they “must demonstrate to the Agency that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside.”  That broad definition allows a lot of leeway in how to manage your free-range chickens.  It does not specify the quality of the outside area, the amount of outside area or the duration of time spent outside. If you purchase free-range eggs or chickens, it would be a good idea to find out what that specific producer considers "free-range."

For the purpose of this article, we will discuss backyard flocks - not large poultry producers.  We will also define free-ranging as allowing your chickens to be outside of an enclosed pen for all or part of the day.  That doesn’t mean there can’t be fences.  Chickens can free-range within a larger fenced-in area such as a pasture, a field or even a backyard.  Just remember that while fences will help contain your flock, chickens can and do fly over them.  And while many fences may help contain chickens, they do little to keep out predators.

In deciding whether or not your chickens can free-range, you should study the benefits and dangers of free-ranging and decide what will work best for your particular flock. There is no “one size fits all” method of free-ranging.  Some people decide that the dangers are too great, and so they work to provide their chickens with a large run where they can still get plenty of exercise and fresh air but in a protected environment. Others let their chickens free-range while managing the risks as best they can.

First, what are the benefits of free-ranging?

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