To Free Range....or Not? Chicken Dreams Vs. Reality

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This is how I pictured it:

Every morning when the sun's first light peeked over the hill, our rooster (Heihei, that would be his name) crowing in the distance would alert us all the day is beginning. Get to it! I'd walk out the front door, in an apron with scratch in the pockets, as our chickens hopped up the steps to greet me. Scratching, and pecking, and living the good life, they'd gather at my feet. When I stooped to say hi, the outgoing and mischievous one would hop on my knees and stick her head in a pocket to get more. I'd laugh and gently put her down and pick up another hen, feeding her scratch from my hand as she cooed in delight. Once the morning chicken ritual was over I'd move on to the next story book farming thing. Maybe goat milking where everyone cooperates and there are definitely no spilled buckets? I don't know. I was too stuck on this chicken dream of mine to move on to day dreaming about anything else at the time. 

A real life sunrise, as seen from our front porch.

A real life sunrise, as seen from our front porch.

Reality:

I had not prepared myself for how much I would worry about our flock of chickens. I've even hash tagged myself #thechickenworrier on Facebook and Instagram. The minute that box full of peeping chicks arrived I knew I was going to do everything in my power to keep them safe and healthy. I woke up in the middle of the night to check on them because I worried they were too hot, or too cold, or their brooder box was too dirty, or they spilled their water, or insert other things chickens need here. I worried a lot, and I still do. We had been working too hard, and waited too long for them to risk losing them to something preventable. I'm grateful none of them ended up being roosters, because if I'm being totally honest, I could have never put him in the soup pot. We'd have a rooster, and his name would be Heihei.

I don't want to go off on a tangent, but purchasing your chicks for eggs and hand raising them is not the same as raising an animal you intend to harvest. I still plan to raise meat birds this spring, and while I'm not gleefully looking forward to harvest, our interactions with them will be done with their purpose in mind. From day one we cuddled and played with the chicks with the intention of having them for the next 5-10 years. How long do chickens live? I want to say at least 5-10 years if they are healthy, and anything over 15 would be a pretty old chicken but it's not unheard of. A chicken's life span is drastically affected by predators, both wild and domestic, and health.

We have two domestic chicken predators living in our house that have mostly free range of the yard. Yeah, our dogs. There is an invisible fence on the property, and we limited their space so they can't get in the pasture, garden, orchard, or anywhere near the coop. We also have frequent visits from the neighborhood dog, Frankie, who has total free range and was last seen proudly carting off his shiny new rabbit kill. I like to think I could train the dogs to protect the chickens instead of eat them, but I won't take that chance, and the effort seemed worthless since I have no control over other people's dogs. We enjoy our visits from Frankie, so I'm not upset he's around a lot. In fact, I would say his presence got us thinking about how we can control our dogs, but we can't control free range dogs. Of all the chicken horror stories I've heard, dogs come up most often as the culprit. 

She may look like she's guarding them, but really she's just hoping one escapes so she can eat it.

She may look like she's guarding them, but really she's just hoping one escapes so she can eat it.

There are coyotes, hawks, possums, raccoons, and even a bobcat family living in the woods. Serious wild chicken predators right there. Which is why it was so convenient we already had a nice solid coop with a run that had full protection. The folks that owned our house before us built it, and I'd say they had a pretty good idea of the dangers their flock could encounter. Neighborhood legend is they never lost a chicken to a predator, which I find rather impressive. 

So coop it was for us. 

A nice sturdy coop with tons of potential. Warning: more wild dreams coming.

A nice sturdy coop with tons of potential. Warning: more wild dreams coming.

That's not to say we threw in the towel and couldn't have happy, healthy, AND cooped hens. We totally do! I put a lot of effort into keeping them entertained and well nourished. We have rather spoiled chickens. 

They have so many toys! The chicken swing is the best! We bought this one, but there is this less expensive version out now you can try. From the time they were little they've loved it, and I see them fighting over it every now and again, which means they need another. I'll be adding that when I do the run addition, which I'll talk more about another time. We also installed a fun xylaphone, which they play with every now and then, and a colorful bridge they fly up on. I see the bridge getting more use when there is snow on the ground.

The ladies inspecting their new toy.

The ladies inspecting their new toy.

They also get so many treats! I really like the Happy Hen treats, and Picky Neb mealworms. They're on Amazon or available at a feed store. They also get lots of fresh treats, like the jack-o-lantern they carved recently. 

This pumpkin was 4 days of nutrition and entertainment. 

This pumpkin was 4 days of nutrition and entertainment. 

One of the other fresh treats they really enjoy is sprouted wheat grass. It's super easy, ready to feed in about a week, and has zero mess. I bought a 5lb bucket of seed, which is going to last for what feels like forever, but you can get it in a 1lb pouch as well. I ordered oat and barley seeds also, but I'm following my usual method of one thing at a time so I haven't sprouted them yet. I have done the wheat seeds successfully three times now without a failure, so I feel good recommending them. The oat and barley seeds appear to take a bit more work. I'll get on testing those soon. 

Enjoying their wheat grass.

Enjoying their wheat grass.

Another thing we do is supervised free range time. I'll sit out there with a cup of coffee, or a beer if it's late afternoon, and watch them forage around the coop. If it's just me I only let a few out at a time, but if I have helpers we can let them all or most of them out. I shoo them into areas I can keep a close watch, and stay nearby so I can help if needed. I just realized that makes me sound like a helicopter chicken momma. Not my intention. Also, what would I do if a hawk really did swoop down? Could I catch it? Can I fight off a hungry raccoon? I don't know the answers, but this method make me feel better, so I'm going to keep it up. 

Escaping! Nah, it's just supervised free range time. 

Escaping! Nah, it's just supervised free range time. 

Which brings me to my final point. There is no right or wrong way to keep chickens as long as you have their health and well being in mind. Would they have a more interesting diet if they free ranged? I'm sure, but I watched one of them fly around the coop nabbing flies out of the air, so they are still getting a few fresh bugs in addition to the dried ones. Keeping them cooped works for us because I'm not up for the heartache a large scale predator attack will bring, and raising baby chicks to egg laying age is expensive and time consuming, so I don't want to make this investment multiple times because we lose them all to something like a loose dog finding it's way here. Cooped chickens aren't a guarantee the whole flock will retire in old age, but it's safer for where we are.

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So do you free range or coop? I'd love to hear about what you decided to do and see a picture of your ladies (and gent if you have one!).  You can share with me on Facebook, or follow along on Instagram.

Cheers! 

Bev

This post contains ads & affiliate links (this links to our full disclosure about browser cookies, and way more than you probably wanted to know about ads and affiliate marketing). We make a small commission when you purchase from some of the links shared in this post. Making a purchase from a link will not cause you to pay more or affect your purchase in any way. It will however, support our wildest farmin' dreams, which is mighty awesome of you.