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Free range chicken experiments

Free range chickens

Last year, I summed up all of the chicken experiments I'd been posting about throughout the year on our Avian Aqua Miser site, and I thought you might enjoy seeing the highlights again this year. 

Chicken territoryOne of the most timely experiments I wanted to mention involved letting our chickens free range in the woods over the winter.  I was fascinated to see that the flock concentrated most of their attention around the bases of big trees, where they scratched through the mulch in search of invertebrates.  They only foraged over about three quarters of an acre, probably because the flock had to stay close enough to the hen house so that ladies could drop by at intervals to lay their eggs.

The forest worked as a good escape valve in the summer too, when the grasses stopped growing and the ground began to look bare in their rotational pastures.  I think this system really depends on a quality rooster, though, since when I tried the same trick with some Pasture chickhalf-grown broilers, they just sat on the other side of the pasture fence and begged to be let back into their home turf.

If you start young chicks free ranging from week one and keep them close to the house, they're the very best chickens to let run semi-wild.  Having trees or bushes available to hide in makes chicks (and adult hens, for that matter) feel safer, so they spend more time hunting wild food.

How to clip a chicken's wingsThere are reasons we don't let our main flock free range all the time, though.  The book Free-Range Chicken Gardens gives some tips for helping chickens coexist with a garden during the growing season, but we like to keep the garden extremely productive, so the chickens get relegated to pastures after they reach two months old.  We were forced to clip a couple of chickens' wings (and then eat one of them) when they didn't toe the line and thought the garden was still fair game during the summer months.

I don't feel like we have much more experimenting to do with free range chickens.  Our system just works!

An automatic chicken waterer at the edge of the woods lets the flock refresh its thirst without running all the way back to the coop.

This post is part of our 2012 Chicken Experiments lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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I loved having free ranging hens. Our last group of 9, plus 2 ducks, loved to range along the side of our low-traffic road in the fall when the acorns started falling and the cars that went by crushed them. I miss having the free ranging hens, but predator problems got so bad this summer that we lost the whole flock and I need to figure out a better system. Plus, as you pointed out, there's the garden issue. I have sacrificed tons of productivity by letting them roam. I've learned a few tricks along the way but I definitely need a better system when I start again (next spring, I hope!).
Comment by Sara Mon Nov 5 14:38:18 2012

We have a very real problem with coyotes and bears here. And even a good solid coop doesn't even begin to deter a hungry bear. We had one rip off a piece of sheet metal with which we had reinforced our door - just like it was a piece of cardboard. And another ripped our gate off it's hinges and split the post all the way to the ground. A neighbor lost 13 birds in one day from a single coyote- or possibly a pair- who just kept coming back and climbing a 6. Foot fence and dragging off hens. And then there's the neighbors pit bull who gets loose. So for now, I have taken to only letting them out a few hours before dusk, and I pretty much stand guard over them until they return to roost. We are in the process of digging fence posts for a large fenced enclosure, and I hope to be able to let them out in that when it's done.
Funny how quickly they learn- they seem to know exactly what time I am coming to let them out, and they are all standing by the door waiting.

Comment by Deb Tue Nov 6 00:21:45 2012

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