Why You Should Be Letting Your Chickens Out

Reader Contribution by Shelby Devore and Farminence
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When I was growing up, there was a man that lived across the street from my parent’s house. Every morning, he would go down to his chicken coop and let all of his chickens out for the day. They spent the day outside, coming and going from the coop as they pleased.  Every evening, he went down to the coop and made sure that they were all up again. He raised and sold both chicks and eggs and had about 50 hens at any given time. I never realized until I got older and had my own chickens why he raised them this way.

Benefits of Pasture-Raising Chickens

There are many different ways that you can describe what is essentially letting chickens loose during the day. Free-ranging, foraging, pasture-raised, etc.  It’s important to note that if you are selling meat or eggs then you need to make sure that you are meeting the regulations for that particular category of raising them. I want to talk to you about letting them loose. Let them access forage and grass.

Why? Because there are so many benefits!

Natural insect control. When you raise chickens on pasture or forage, you can reduce your insect load in your yard or garden, decrease your feed costs, and increase both the chicken’s health and your own (if you eat the eggs and/or meat). Chickens that are out on pasture will eat some forage and grasses (usually about 30 to 40% of their diet). They will eat vegetation that is lush and plump. They’ll spend the majority of their time looking for insects though. Insects will make up about 40 to 50% of their diet when they are out naturally ranging. Natural bug control anyone?

Save money on chicken feed. Obviously, if the chickens are out and eating forage and insects, they will require less feed from you, which saves you money. I always think it’s crazy when people mention that keeping chickens is expensive. Believe it or not, I don’t spend a dime on feed once my chickens leave the brooder. They are out all day long foraging and it doesn’t cost me anything!

Natural methionine source. There are several reasons why letting your chickens forage makes them healthier. If you have chickens and you keep them up, you may have noticed in the past one chicken that gets pecked frequently. Or maybe you’ve seen one chicken that pecks the other chickens constantly. (I don’t mean a quick show of dominance peck, but a constant pecking that removes feathers and causes wounds.) Chickens require methionine in their diet. Methionine is an amino acid that is used to make proteins. A chicken’s body cannot make it but it has to have it. Methionine is found in animal proteins, not plant proteins. Feed companies usually add methionine to feed but it can break down over time. Chickens that aren’t getting enough methionine will try to find it any way that they can, including other chickens. Extreme cases of methionine deficiency can cause cannibalism. 

Reduced cannibalism. Insects are packed with methionine. When chickens are out foraging, they are able to get plenty of methionine in their diet. I’ve always let my chickens out during the day. A few years ago, we had a couple of hens that had to be kept up during the day.  We gave them ample feed and made sure that they were healthy. One of the hens began some cannabalistic behaviors.  We started letting her out and the first afternoon that she was out, she stopped. Turns out, she had a methionine deficiency and was craving it. I checked the label of the feed and it should have had plenty of methionine in it. Apparently, it had broken down since it was added to the feed and she wasn’t getting enough. 

Chickens also need vitamins A,B and D. They are able to forage and get vitamins A and B from the grass and insects that they consume. Just like us, chickens can make their own vitamin D when they are exposed to sunlight.  Chickens that are on pasture or foraging will get enough sunlight to make plenty of vitamin D. Chicken feed often contains a compound called fagopyrin that causes sensitivity to sunlight and can lead to sunburns.

Nutrient-rich eggs. Allowing your chickens to be on pasture also creates healthier eggs and meat products for you. There have been numerous research projects done about the nutritional value of eggs and meat that is raised on pasture. The difference in pasture raised and feed-raised is astounding. According to the USDA, pasture-raised eggs contain 40% more vitamin A, less cholesterol, more omega-3 fatty acids, more protein, less saturated fat, 3x’s more vitamin E and 7x’s more betacarotene!  If you eat the meat, you’ll enjoy benefits like less saturated fat, more omega-3 fatty acids and no added hormones or antibiotics. 

So, if you’re not letting your chickens out daily, what’s stopping you? Read more about pastured-raised chickens on my site, Farminene.

Shelby DeVore is an agricultural enthusiast that enjoys writing about gardening, raising livestock and simple living. You can read her most recent posts on Farminence.com or follow Farminence on Pinterest and Twitter. Read all of Shelby’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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