One of my favorite part of keeping hens is watching them through out the day as they do their chicken thing. They are so fun to watch as they scratch around, chase bugs and wander through the yard.
I love seeing their social dynamics, who hangs with who, which chicken is always left behind, and I have to admit my heart stops a little every time I see them writhing on the ground dust bathing. (I have learned NOT to run over every time thinking they’ve had a stroke).
When we built our original chicken coop for our first three hens it was the standard 3 feet of coops space and 10 feet of run space per hen. It was quickly apparent to me that they were just not happy in that little space and I let them out to roam every day while I could supervise. Pretty soon that turned into I let them out to roam everyday, and then into they were left out to roam constantly.
Fast forward four years and those original three chickens have turned into eight hens and four chicks. We’ve expanded their coop, dismantled it and built a larger one, and are planning an even larger one for this summer. They still have the requisite 10 feet of run space because the city wants to see it when they stop by for permitting purposes, plus it’s nice to feed the birds without the goats butting in. But mostly, my birds do my lawn mowing and pest control for me.
I really love letting my birds have free access to my yard, but there are some adjustments in how I manage the backyard farm to accommodate for their antics.
The Egg Hunt
For the first few years I would have to scour the yard looking for eggs. My kids would laugh at me as I crawled on my belly under bushes, parting the leaves of the plants. It’s pretty obvious when there is a hidden cache, because I can hear their egg laying squacks but there are no eggs in the nest box.
After the first few times I’ve learned what they are looking for and I’ve tried to make their nest boxes the perfect place for them. I have fewer missing eggs, but we still get the occasional surprise out in the garden.
My hens prefer low, dark, places to lay their eggs. If I open up the coop doors repeatedly and stick my hand under them to grab eggs while they are still laying I can pretty much guarantee that hen won’t be in the box tomorrow, so I try to leave them alone as much as I can. Sometimes breakfast just won’t wait though!
They also are picky about cleanliness. If the stray poop ends up in the nest they tend to get crabby and start wandering, so when I head out to feed them in the mornings I make sure to re-line their nests. I have also noticed they prefer nesting in softer areas. I was lining their boxes with straw until they decide the goat manger was more to their liking. I switched to hay and they switched back.
Chickens generally like to share nests and a good rule of thumb is three to four chickens per nest box. My eight hens seem to all go for the same spot in the coop and my older hens started getting aggressive with some of the younger ones.
I realized that the spot they prefer is more secluded from the ramp up into the coop and so I switched the direction the second box was facing for more privacy and added a third box on the lower level for the very bottom of my pecking order.
A couple of plastic easter eggs in the new spots were all the encouragement they needed to check them out. If I’m aware of my birds, and understand what they are looking for, I can accommodate their needs better and they accommodate me by laying egg where I want them.
Shelter and Protection
Because my birds spend most of their time out doors their coop is smaller then usually recommended for the number of birds we have. This works for our flock because they have plenty of roosting space and various locations throughout the yard where they can get out of the weather and just hang out.
Our coop is super duper rodent, raccoon, possum, and skunk proof (all creatures we’ve had passing through our yard) and the hens get let in and out each morning and night.
Our entire from and back yard are fenced. The front fence is shorter then the back and my more active birds can hop it so they only get to go out front with supervision. Not only does this keep my birds in but it also keeps stray children and dogs out.
When I first start introducing chicks into the yard they begin by spending a few supervised hours in one of my gardens. This garden has chicken wire across any gaps that they might escape through and it also deters neighboring cats. Cats could still go over the fence but that is easier to spot. We don’t have a big problem with cats though, because our two defend their territory quite effectively.
Once birds go out into the yard they are quite proficient at hiding themselves in bushes and plants from overhead predators, stay away from the fence, and are accustomed to their “boundaries.” I make sure to clip their wing feathers, but if I’m a little late and one of them does make it out I always find it pacing frantically along the fence line trying to get back to her flock. (My neighbor thinks this is very funny, thank goodness).
Pooper Scooper and Gardening
The two biggest down sides of free ranging the hens are stepping in chicken poop and having them escape into a newly planted area of the yard. It’s not too difficult to scoop the chicken do along with the doggie do, and my kids are really good at watching where they walk, so that’s how we handle that.
Last year I fenced off a corner of the yard to plant some vegetables and the chickens and the goats worked in tandem to knock it over and destroy my seedlings, so I need to work out a more permanent solution for that corner. My other two garden areas have solid fences separating them and the chickens are only allowed to free range in those areas during times of the year when I am not planting.
They really enjoy getting in there in the spring and digging up worms with me as I get the garden ready, and they love the shade of mature vines. Clean up time is fun too, as I weed out the finished plants they get to eat their fill of whatever bugs or stray tomatoes we unearth.
I have found it very effective to plant potatoes in the main chicken yard. While potato plants are poisonous, my chickens leave them completely alone. They have enough other yummy food and grass and clover that they are not so desperate for greens that they would poison themselves.
Did I mention that our super duper critter free coop is goat proof too? My goats go crazy for chicken food so I either feed the hens while I milk the goats or I leave their feeder in the bottom half of the two story coop and there is a mini door that the chickens fit through, but only the goat’s noses can get into.
I’m certain that free ranging the birds decrease the amount of feed I have to buy. I let the clover grow in the lawn as a mini-pasture and they keep everything nicely mowed. They also have free range in the compost bin and treat themselves to scraps while at the same time turning it for me.
Everyone kept telling me that the hens would kill all the grass. Well the hens could hardly keep up with the grass until we chopped down some trees and bushes and brambles in the back and accidentally smothered the lawn right before winter. I’ve since planted more grass and it’s coming in nicely even with the goats and chickens free ranging. The only places that aren’t growing are where I clomp around.
I finally found out by reading Free Range Chicken Gardens by Jessi Bloom (good book, check it out!) that the minimum space requirement to successfully free range hens is about 250 square feet per bird. My birds have more then that amount of space right now, but I may need to curb my chicken collecting in a couple years as Edward insists on running a chicken retirement home for all our birds.
Overall there are so many benefits to free ranging my birds that the down sides are hardly a bother to me. If your situation isn’t appropriate for full time free ranging, even part time can be good for the birds and super fun to watch. If you let your birds out in the evening they won’t wander far before returning home to roost for the night.
Do you free range your birds? Part time or full time? What issues have you run into and what kinds of solutions have worked for you?
This post was first published at Farming My Backyard