This article explores the best methods on how to free range chickens and do so safely. Whether you have a small farm, suburban backyard chickens with just a small area, or live on multiple acres in the country with a large area to utilize — it might be easier (and cheaper) than you think to keep free-ranging chickens.
Like many chicken keepers, we raise ours on pasture successfully with no major issues. We find it an easy task and a simple good idea with numerous benefits to us and the birds. Did you know that chickens exposed to sunlight lay eggs that had significantly more Vitamin D3 in their yolks? 30-40 times more! And there really are so many really good reasons beyond that, such as:
- Cut down on feed costs
- Healthier eggs with more nutritional value
- Tastier eggs with bright yellow yolks
- Egg production can increase
- More than organic chickens that get to live out their natural instincts
- Healthier and tastier meat
- Happy chickens living a happy life
- Exposure to sunlight
- Less mess to clean up from the run and coop
- Free source of organic fertilizer
- Soil Aeration
- Pest control
- Sheer enjoyment of watching them live natural lives
- Risk of aerial and ground predators (hawks, raccoons, dogs)
- Risk of accidents from cars
- Risk of disease from wild birds
- Chicken waste in places you don't want or appreciate
- Chickens eating your flower and vegetable gardens
- Chickens not coming home to the coop voluntarily at dusk
With all of this in mind, lets get in to how to free-range chickens in order to reap the benefits while eliminating or mitigating the risks and less desirable behaviours of your flock.
And yes — you can start young chicks and even recently hatched baby chicks on pasture. Check out my guide to Raising & Brooding Chicks Right for more details.
The Free-Range Free-For-All Method
So this is what we do. No enclosed run. No fences border our property. No electric netting keep the chickens contained. No Joel Salatin or Amish style mobile chicken tractors either.
Our chickens have true free range. In the morning they are released from their coop and they spend their days how they choose — mostly they are searching for edible plants and bugs.
In the summer months, their feed is only brought out for a brief time in the morning and again before dusk to encourage them to hunt and forage the rest of the day.
It really helps if you have a strong backyard ecosystem instead of a monoculture lawn or pasture sprayed with chemicals. We love and encourage all sorts of wild, native, and naturalized plants like clover and mallow which chickens absolutely love to graze.
This works well for us and it is the easiest way to free-range your chickens.
- Chickens not coming home to roost
- Daily egg hunting
- Predators (aerial and ground)
- Destruction of vegetable and flower gardens
- Disease from wild birds
- Chicken poop everywhere
Chickens Not Coming Home to Roost
There is a very easy solution to this — keep your chickens locked up inside their coop for at least 3 days and up a week. They will know where "home" is after that time andput themselves away nicely to bed at dusk.
You can move their chicken feeder to be right outside the coop too if they need extra encouragement.
If you have a few stray members that refuse to go inside the coop, this almost always means something is wrong. Either the chicken is scared, being bullied and pecked at by the other chickens, or there is some type of predator problem like mice or rats in the coop making them uncomfortable.
Solve that problem and your renegade chicken will return to the coop at night.
Daily Egg Hunting
It's Easter everyday! Sometimes, free-range chickens will decide to start laying outside of the coop nesting boxes and instead pick some random bush, patch of weeds, or pile of garbage. Weeks later you will stumble upon a nest of dozens of wasted eggs and weep.
The easiest solution is to keep the chickens locked up inside their coops until everyone is done laying. Usually this is by 10-11 A.M at the absolute latest.
We have not had any daytime predator losses and there are two big reasons for this. Firstly, our farm is located in the middle of farm country and there are huge fields (not forest) surrounding our property.
The second is that our property has tons of trees, bushes, shrubs, and patches of wild plant growth which heavily deters aerial predators. And this includes evergreens to which is perfect for fall and winter.
I have seen my chickens quickly running underneath an evergreen tree, hidden totally from sight, as a hawk flies overhead.
I have also witnessed birds of prey circling the surrounding fields but not bothering with our property due to the amount of tree protection.
Planting plenty of trees and shrubs may be a big determining factor in how you free range your chickens.
The other potential deterrent that we don't use but many people swear by is a fake owl decoy to deter hawks from our chicken flock. The caveat is that the owl decoy must be moved every other day or the hawks will start to ignore it.
You can also consider adding a livestock guardian dog as a guard dog to protect your chickens, other farm animals, and property. In some areas, especially those that see a lot of coyote or big cat activity, this might be the best choice.
Free ranging chickens can be dangerous next to a busy road that gets a lot of vehicile traffic. We live on a gravel country road that is seldom used so this is not a concern for us.
If you do live on a busy road with no fencing, you may have to wait and watch to see if your chickens have any interest in it.
As it turns out the reason the chicken may have crossed the road is that there was some enticing food on the other side (I'm so sorry.)
Your experience may vary.
Destruction of Gardens
If you free-range your chickens you may find that they develop a taste for your vegetable gardens and flower beds.
The easy solution here of course is to fence them off but that may be expensive to do it in a way that is aesthetically pleasing. Cheaper solutions like chicken wire may not look that great to you.
And then of course there are the flower beds. Most people don't exactly want to fence off their flower beds just to keep chickens out.
So what are the possible solutions? The first is to just accept that chickens will destroy a certain amount of your pretty landscaping. You could try planting a very tasty garden just for them that is completely seperate, or you might even try gardening with chickens and integrating plants for them directly with the rest.
Diseases From Wild Birds
Wild birds may carry diseases that are dangerous for your flock. One of the most common is coccidiosis but the easiest solution for that is to implement the Deep Litter Method when it comes to your coop management and cleaning plan.
Otherwise, buy birds from great breeders and maintain a healthy and vigorous flock.
Chicken Poop Everywhere
Not everyone appreciates the free lawn fertilization that chickens provide through their waste.
Depending on the size of your flock and your property this might become a problem in areas you don't want chickens in — like places where your children play.
Our property is large enough that this is not a concern but you may not have that large of a space to work with.
As with most things, fences and control of where chickens free range is the solution but that may not work for you, your property, or your budget. Wash your hands frequently, or move on to another method for how to free-range chickens.
The Portable Electric Netting Method
All of the above can be eliminated or controlled by confining your chickens within a portable electric net. This way you control exactly where they go and when. You won't have to worry about chickens in your flower beds or vegetable garden or of them getting hit by a car.
- Access to shade
- Aerial predators
Look for sales, buy used, or just save up gradually until you can get it.
Instead of opening the coop door (or letting your automatic coop door opener do that for you) you have to set up an electric fence and change the location at least every other day so that your chickens don't utterly annihilate the lawn/pasture.
Buying a good system that is easy to use and well-made will make this easier to deal with.
Access to Shade
You can't just leave chickens out in the blazing sun. They need a source of shade to escape under. Make sure you have that in place.
Aerial predators will still be a potential threat. Whatever you use for shade protection should be able to provide your chickens with a place to hide under as well. This is not an absolute guarantee of safety.
The Mobile Chicken Tractor or Coop Method
This is a fantastic solution that combines the best of free-ranged pastured chickens with the security and control of a backyard chicken coop with a large run. There are two ways to do this.
In the first way you have a mobile chicken tractor. Each morning you release the chickens from their coop and entice them into their tractor with feed.
Once they are inside, you shut the door and the tractor is then moved to the desired location. The tractor is mobile and generally built to have wheels on one end making it easy to maneuver.
It is also fully secured and covered and predator-proofed from both ground and aerial sources.
With either method, it is important to remember that although the chickens are free-range and have outdoor access and fresh air, they are still confined and the number of birds you can keep is really dependent on the size of your portable coop or tractor.
Make sure you have adequate square feet for the flock. A good rule of thumb is 10 square foot per animal. And the breed of hen matters too as bantams need less space than larger varieties like Orpingtons or Brahmas.
In the second method, you have a mobile chicken tractor coop.
The chickens live, sleep, and lay eggs inside and are moved from spot to the next as needed.
There is no way around the construction costs of something like this. And the bigger your flock, the larger it has to be.
Keeping it to just a mobile tractor but having the chickens sleep and lay inside a separate coop might be cheaper. However, if you do not have a coop built or bought yet, you might just find that the mobile tractor coop is the easier and cheaper solution after all.
Talk to you online chicken groups to see what people have come up with in terms of design. Look for used ones.
And if you're handy enough, you may be able to build it yourself.
Your mobile tractor or mobile tractor coop still has to be moved daily or every other day to keep the chickens on fresh pasture.
Moving it right next to the spot that they were on the previous day is what people who use this method do.
Remember that you need to provide your chickens with feed, water, dust baths — and if you're not feeding layer feed, they need a calcium source on the side too. Grit is unessecry with chickens on pasture as they get enough from pecking at the dirt.
Learn More About Chickens:
- Can Chickens Eat Tomatoes?
- Feeding Chickens Cheese & Dairy Products
- What To Feed Chickens During Winter
- Can Chickens Eat Grapes? Grape Safety & Nutrition
- Can Chickens Eat Bananas & Banana Peels?
- Fermenting Chicken Feed For Healthier Hens, Better Eggs, & Cost Savings
- 15 Surprising Benefits Of Backyard Chickens
- Pasty Butt in Chickens: Symptoms, Causes, Treatment, & Prevention
Storey's Guide to Raising Chickens. This is a classic that everyone should have if they are planning on raising chickens. This book technically has everything you need within the pages. That being said, if you are looking for more organic and natural approaches to chicken-keeping, I recommend this book alongside something that will serve that purpose too.
The Small-Scale Poultry Flock: An All-Natural Approach to Raising Chickens and Other Fowl for Home and Market Growers. This is my favourite. The most comprehensive guide to date on raising all-natural poultry for the small-scale farmer, homesteader, and professional grower. The Small-Scale Poultry Flock offers a practical and integrative model for working with chickens and other domestic fowl, based entirely on natural systems.