Free-ranging is all the rage. You see it advertised in the grocery store for both meat and eggs and it something people who buy my eggs ask me about a lot. No one wants their food coming from a chicken who has been locked up all of their life, but free-ranging your flock comes with some challenges. If those challenges aren’t met you can end up with mad neighbors or dead chickens.
Location, Location, Location
That’s what they say in real estate right? Well, the same goes for raising chickens. Where you are and how much room you have will dictate the best way to give your flock some room to run around. If you live in a suburban neighborhood and have a high fenced backyard, opening the coop door and letting your chickens run might be all you have to do. At least until one of your chickens realizes they can fly over that fence.
If, on the other hand, you live in a rural area with a large number of predators, you might need to come up with some safety measures to keep your flock safe.
To keep your hen friends happy and free, take a look around your property and decide what challenges you will face. Consider things like:
- Available space
- Current fencing or the cost of new fencing
- Predators common to your area
- Domestic animals who have a tendency to wander
- Your comfort and willingness to clip wings
Once you know the problems, it’s easier to come up with solutions.
If you have a small property in town, your biggest concerns will probably be chicken escapes and neighborhood animals. A good solid fence will go a long way in helping with the neighborhood dogs. Many dogs are sighthounds and if they can’t see them, they won’t want to chase them. If you have a particularly determined hound who wants to dig under your fence, you can line the inside of the fence with cinderblocks or large rocks to make it a little harder for Fido to get under. This will also help deter nuisance animals like raccoons and possums.
For that one chicken who just has to go visit the neighbors, wing clipping might be a good option. Clipping a chicken’s wing doesn’t hurt them if done correctly. It is a simple procedure where you spread the feathers of one wing out and clip the flying feathers towards the tip of the wing. This is best done at night when chickens are sleeping. Unless of course, you want a little extra exercise chasing your chickens around.
For those people with larger properties and a high predator count, a chicken tractor might be a good in-between solution. A chicken tractor is not a tiny tractor your chicken drives around mowing your lawn. Great idea, but probably not workable. How would they reach the pedals? No, a chicken tractor is more like a mobile coop. It allows you to keep chickens safe from predators and lets them get plenty of fresh grass and bugs. The most important traits of a good chicken tractor are mobility and predator proofing. Good hard mesh chicken wire that comes to the ground or doubled up soft chicken wire will keep your flock safe. Wheels mean you can move the tractor around to keep your chickens scratching for bugs in fresh grass.
To build your own chicken tractor you can use something simple like Franny does in this video or you can do something a little more fancy like Genelle from Hitchman Homestead. Genelle uses her Conestoga wagon tractor for her egg-laying flock and moves it daily in the summer. You will notice the hitch upfront. All she just has to do is hook up and go.
One other benefit of chicken tractors is the fertilizer factor. As your chickens eat, they kindly leave behind a little fertilizer as they go. If you have a garden to go along with your flock, consider putting the tractor in the garden during the winter. This will give you a little extra fertilizer and they can scratch up and destroy bugs lurking beneath the surface just waiting for you plant your spring crop.
Livestock Guardian Dogs
For full-on, running around like mad, free-ranging chickens, you are going to need a good dog. Chickens left to wander a property without any type of protection often become a snack for something else. This can get expensive and traumatic. A well-trained livestock dog can protect your chickens from all of the things that want to eat them.
A good livestock dog is made not born. While there are some breeds who tend to do well as livestock dogs, think Great Pyrenees or Anatolian Shepherds, many dogs can work well as a livestock dog. The truth is, most any dog you get will require at least some training.
Here at our farm, we have three dogs of questionable breeding. They are lovingly known as the old dog, the fat dog, and the coyote. They all came from the local pound and they all required at least basic training to turn them into good farm dogs. The brown dog is a golden retriever mix, the fat dog, a rottweiler mix, and the coyote is a husky/German shepherd mix. Of the three, the brown dog was the easiest to train to be chicken proof and the shepherd mix was the hardest. However, once the shepherd knew they were his chickens, he happily protects them from all manner of critters.
If you have never trained a working dog, your best bet is going to be finding a reputable breeder in your area and working with them to get you the right dog for your situation. If you choose to go the pound route, steer clear of bully breeds that can be a little, well, bull-headed. Either way, it is a good idea to work with a trainer or at least a knowledgeable friend to get your dog trained properly. Don’t forget, dogs like chicken dinners too.
Free-ranging your chickens is good for the chickens and good for you. A free-ranging chicken can eat bugs, fertilize, and spread the manure piles of larger animals around, lowering the worm load on your property. It’s also a lot of fun to watch them. Before you start free-ranging, assess your situation and make a plan to keep your chickens safe while they roam about.
Michele Cook is a farmer, author, and communications specialist for the National Federation of Press Women. She raises chickens, goats, and vegetables on her small farm in the beautiful Allegheny mountains of Virginia. If she is not outside caring for her farm you can find her curled up in a chair with her nose stuck in a good book. Follow her on her website.