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Advantages (And Disadvantages) Of Free Range Chicken Farming
I have many charming memories of my grandparents’ farm. Growing up, I remember huge flocks of chickens, of all different colors and varieties, happily pecking at gravel in the driveway.
For water they’d tootle over to the pond, where they could drink freely before going and exploring a large pile of oak leaves chock-full of delicious, fat, pink earthworms.
I remember thinking those birds had the life: totally free, independent, and having a blast rassling up some literal grubs.
As grampie and I walked, I noticed we were heading to the barn. “That’s strange,” I thought, “Why would the chickens be in the barn on such a nice day?” Much to my surprise, grandpa led me to an indoor coop full of chickens. I was disappointed. Why had he given up free ranging the chickens? While they were well taken care of, and had everything they needed, the coop was not the romantic site I remembered from childhood.
I asked him why he no longer free ranged his chickens and it turns out he had some great reasons. Keep reading to learn more about the advantages (and disadvantages) of free range chicken farming.
What Is “Free Range” Chicken Farming?
Before we begin, it’s important to note that my use of the phrase “free range” is different from how large-scale poultry farmers use the term. I will be using the following definition:
“The process of opening up the coop and letting chickens roam around your property at will during the daytime.”
Large scale poultry farming legal terminology: “Producers must demonstrate to the Agency (USDA) that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside.”
Under the industry definition, any exposure, whether it be five minutes or a whole day of exposure, to the outdoors qualifies as “free range,”
For the sake of this article, we are going to use my definition of free range, where chickens are let out of their coop and go where they please during the day.
Advantages of Free Range Chicken Farming
Perhaps the most obvious advantage of free ranging your flock is the increase in happy chicken behaviors. You can tell a chicken is happy when they do things like hunt, cluck quietly to themselves, dust bathe, and scratch in the dust. They are alert, and carry their head high as they strut their stuff.
Sure, these happy behaviors will happen from time to time in a coop or confined space, but they will happen a whole lot more often when birds are allowed to scavenge outside.
More than ever people care about the well-being and health of animals. Many consumers make intentional choices to only buy meats they feel was ethically raised. If you sell your meat or eggs, you can take advantage of this trend and advertise your products as “free range.” Doing so ups the value of your product and may bring attention and more customers to your farm in the future.
Pecking Order Escape
The pecking order serves as chickens’ social structure, and it is often brutal. Pecking and general bullying behaviors arise when chickens feel a sense of competition for resources such as food, water, or mates. When chickens are free range, however, the aggressivity of the pecking order goes down.
This is because their is plenty for all (unlimited grass, worms, etcetera,) and low pecking order birds have more space to run and escape when they are being attacked.
Lower Food Costs
While chickens are outside their main objective is scavenging and hunting for food. They eat grass, peck at bugs, and dig for worms. They can find quite a bit of food this way, and that means they will depend less on your store-bought feed for their calorie intake. This means that if your property has a lot of bugs and grass you can save money on your feed bill.
I know what you’re thinking. “This sounds great. Everyone should free range their chickens.” I thought so too, until grampie gave me some perspective on the potential disadvantages of free ranging your birds.
Disadvantages of Free Range Chicken Farming
The number one disadvantage to free ranging your flock is safety. On my family farm we were lucky to be far from the road. Our chicken coop was housed under a couple of big trees that provided shade for our chickens and there was a large trailer where they could run if a predator showed up. Such ideal circumstances, however, are not universal.
When a chicken is left outdoors, it is exposed to all kinds of danger. If it wanders into the road, it could be hit by a car. Predators may snatch it up. If a chicken isn’t used to free ranging, it could wander too far and get lost. Your chicken could eat something poisonous, like fertilizer.
You must consider what risks are present on your property and decide for yourself if you want to free range your flock. Some properties are more suitable than others.
No Guarantees With Nutrition
How much food and what type of food chickens can glean from free ranging varies greatly. What chickens can scavenge on my property isn’t what they would get on yours. The food they get free ranging can even change from day to day.
For chicken owners with very specific production goals, this lack of knowledge about what the flock is eating is a problem. If you need your chickens to maintain a certain weight gain over time, or they must produce a certain number of eggs per week, you may want to skip free ranging and its variability opting instead for a general feed regimen in a coop.
Free Range Chickens Can Be Messy
While my initial memories of my grandfather’s free range chickens were rosy, further thought conjured other memories. I recall running through the front yard and slipping on greasy chicken poop which was to be found virtually everywhere.
Grandpa had a boat he stored in the barn. He rarely used it because it was such an event cleaning up the chicken dust and giant white poop globules that were plastered to the windows and seats. It never did smell quite right after a couple summers of free ranging, even when it was wiped down.
Long story short, chickens are messy. There is not guarantee that their mess will be contained to where it is convenient for you. Cars, boats, bikes, open outbuildings, and more, are all free game to the free range chicken.
Should you keep your chickens in a coop or let them free range? There is no “right answer” for everyone. The best course of action is to think about your farm layout, your priorities, and goals. From there you choose the option that aligns most closely with your vision, should that be keeping your birds in a coop, free ranging, or some combination of both.