Raising Free-Range Chickens

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

| July/August 1984

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 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?

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.

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