In an ideal world they happily roam about as they please, weeding your garden, eating bugs, and leaving just enough eggs for your morning omelet right on your doorstep. In reality, free range chickens take some management. While they do roam, it may be over to your neighbor’s house where they are chased by their dog. A young garden does not hold up well to hungry chickens and most days all they leave on your doorstep is… well, something you don’t want to step in. But free range chickens, when managed correctly, can provide entertainment, eggs in abundance, and a very satisfying addition to your home. Here are some tips for free range management:
- Get chickens used to their “home base.” Even though you want your birds to roam, you still need to establish a spot for them to lay their eggs and roost. Keeping them in a coop or other confined area for a few weeks before turning them out to explore is a great idea. After being set free they will instinctively return to this spot to roost at night. Offering scratch or other treats is a good way to lure them back in their coop or confined area if the need arises during the day.
- Keep track of where they lay. I didn’t know our first group of chickens were laying until I found a clutch of 18 eggs in the dog house! Keeping them confined to the coop for the first week or two of laying and providing comfortable nest boxes (1 for every 3 or 4 hens) will help – as will adding fake eggs to the nests. If you do have a rogue hen who insists on laying elsewhere, keep your ears open. Chickens usually make a racket when laying an egg, so the “egg song” may help lead you to her nest.
- Watch out for predators. Make sure that your chickens are not going to be harassed by dogs, cats, or other predators. Keep an eye on the sky; hawks and eagles enjoy a chicken dinner just like the rest of us. Make sure your chickens always have access to shelter if they need somewhere to hide, and consider getting a rooster, as one of a rooster’s main instincts is to guard and protect his hens and alert them of any impending danger. Even with supervision during their ranging time, there is always a chance that a predator will attack your flock.
- Fence off young garden plants or tender flower shoots since they can be a favorite meal for a chicken. Newly dug earth and freshly mulched beds can be a dream come true for a hen looking to take a dust bath.
- Keep fresh clean water available at all times where your chickens can always access it. This may mean having multiple watering stations set up around the areas where the birds will be ranging as well as in the coop.
With just a few management strategies, you can enjoy your free range chickens (and their eggs) for a long time to come.