It is commonly said that chickens are the gateway animal for homesteaders. And for good reason. Chickens are small animals and they are relatively easy to take care of.
When getting chickens, a big consideration regarding their management is whether to keep them confined in a yard or allow them to free roam. Can you let chickens free roam? The answer is yes! But there are pros and cons to allowing your chickens to free roam. This article will explore the topic of free roaming chickens and give advice on how to successfully free roam your chickens.
Pros and Cons of Free Roaming Chickens
Our Overall Experience With Chickens
While chickens were not the first animal that we introduced to our homestead, we did bring them on within the first year of moving out here.
Our first flock of chickens consisted of 5 chickens (3 hens and 2 roosters) and they were about 8 weeks old when we brought them home. Since they were so young we kept them in a chicken yard that we built around the coop.
They were pretty content in there and we really did not give any thought to letting them roam freely.
Over time the dynamics of our flock changed. We lost 2 hens, one to natural causes and the other to a predator (she mistakingly got left out of the coop one night).
Around that time a friend needed to downsize her flock and she offered to give us some hens. We brought home 6 hens and added them into our little flock. Everybody adjusted nicely and at that point we had 7 hens and 2 roosters.
We ended up losing our last original hen during a polar vortex which left us with our original 2 roosters and the 6 hens that our friend gifted to us.
Deciding to Switch to Free Roaming Chickens
It was not until our friend gave us the 6 hens that we even considered allowing our chickens to roam freely. Our friend had a flock of over 50 chickens and she allowed them to free roam at her place.
Knowing that our new hens had experience with free roaming made us think twice about our current method of using the chicken yard.
The chicken yard was starting to look a little rough and we decided to go ahead and try letting the chickens roam freely during the day so they could have better access to forage.
I must admit that I had some trepidation about the transition, but everything went smoothly and we now allow our chickens to roam freely everyday!
We gained valuable perspective through the two management styles. This article will weigh the pros and cons of both management styles to help you determine which method is best for you.
It will also include some tips for how to successfully transition to free roaming chickens should you decide to make the switch.
Cons of Free Roaming Chickens
1. Chickens in the Garden
If you have a garden, allowing your chickens to roam free could spell trouble for your garden. Chickens love to peck and dig in gardens and they will happily snatch up seeds, seedlings, and other plants in the garden.
There are two ways of handling this potential problem. The first is to build a fence around your garden. The second is to train your chickens to stay out of your garden.
Intially I planned to enclose my garden with a fence, but lacking the materials, and not wanting to spend money on fencing materials, I decided to give it a go without the fence.
That meant that I had to train the chickens to stay out of the garden. I honestly was not sure how successful this would be, but I can now say that my chickens are trained to stay out my garden.
It was not particularly challening to train them, but it did require a vigilant eye and quick action. Since my garden is directly outside my window, it was easy for my kids and I to watch the chickens. Anytime we saw them get in the garden we chased them out. After a week or two they finally got the idea and have since stayed out of the garden.
We are home nearly all the time, so it was not a problem for us to watch them throughout the day. If you are regularly gone for long periods of time during the day, then putting a fence around your garden is probably the better option.
Predators are an important consideration when thinking about allowing your chickens to free roam. This can come in the form of wildlife and domestic animals such as dogs and cats.
The predator situation in our area is not particularly bad. We do have hawks, coyotes, foxes, raccoons, opposums, and the occasional bobcat. But these have not presented themselves as a problem for us. Most of those animals are nocturnal and we keep our chickens locked up in the coop at night.
Dogs and cats, whether they are yours or a neighbor’s can also be a cause for concern. This was honestly the greater concern for me. Our dog is an Irish Setter and is as sweet as can be, but she is a bird dog. She gets the greatest joy out of chasing wild birds when we walk through our pasture.
I was concerned that our dog’s bird chasing instinct would kick in and that she would give the chickens a hard time. So when we first allowed the chickens out of the yard, I kept a very close eye on her. But it ended up not being an issue at all.
Since she had some exposure to them through the fence when they were in the the chicken yard, she was already familiar with them. She seemed to recognize that these birds were different than the birds she chases in the wild.
And in fact, I have seen her act as a guardian towards the chickens. There have been times when hawks have flown fairly close to the chickens and our dog chases off the hawks. The chickens have become quite trusting of her. Because she is so calm around them the chickens are not afraid of her. It is actually pretty fun to watch the dog and chickens mingle together.
3. Finding Eggs
This con is not too big of an issue, but it is something to consider. When you allow your chickens to free roam, you may have to prepare yourself to go on a little egg hunt each day. Most of our hens still prefer to lay their eggs in the coop. But we have a few hens who are a bit more adventurous and will sometimes lay their eggs in different places.
Fortuantely they have become rather predictable with where they lay them, so we know to check those various locations regularly. However we have found the odd egg or two tucked away in a wooded area that went bad before we came across them.
Pros of Free Roaming Chickens
1. Chickens in the Garden
But Maggie, didn’t you just say that chickens in the garden was a con? Why yes, yes I did! But chickens in the garden, under the right circumstances, can be a pro.
At the end of the growing season, and again as I am preparing the soil for a new season, I like to let my chickens loose in the garden to clean up and turn the soil. Since the chickens have been trained to stay out of the garden, I encourage them to get in the garden by spreading some of their feed throughout the garden. They have a blast as they peck through the garden.
The second way that chickens are helpful in the garden is that I use them to turn the compost pile. They have free access to the compost pile and they love to dig through it. It increases the rate at which the organic matter turns into compost, so they are really quite beneficial in this area.
2. Bug Control
This is one of my favorite aspects of allowing chickens to free roam. They are fantastic at helping keep the bug population under control. We live in an area that has a lot of ticks. With allowing the chickens to free roam, they are able to cover a greater area and eat more undesirable bugs.
The chickens also root through the manure of our livestock, which helps break it up so it can nourish the soil. Chickens really are amazing creatures when you think about what they are capable of in regard to regenerative agriculture practices.
3. Healthy and Happy Chickens
And this is hands down the absolute best reason to allow your chickens to free roam. Our chickens have never been healthier, and they are so happy when they get to run around and enjoy their life to the fullest. It reminds me of this Joel Salatin book and how the chickens just get to be chickens to their fullest extent.
And honestly, I get so much more enjoyment out of them too. When they were confined to the chicken yard, I really did not have much to do with the chickens. My kids were responsible for most of their care, and my husband oversaw them in their duties.
While the distribution of care has not changed at all, I now have a lot more interaction with the chickens throughout the day, and quite frankly, they bring me a lot of joy.
I have come to recognize their different personalities and it is fun to watch them interact together. I know which hen is the adventurous one, which one is likely to lay her egg in a secret spot, and which one will most proudly announce to the world that she has layed an egg. I can recognize our roosters by the sound of their crowing.
I love watching them move around as a flock as they go off on adventures together through the fields and woods. I enjoy listening to them cluck right outside my window. And it is pleasant to watch them settle down into a nice shady spot for a little afternoon rest on a warm day.
How to Start Free Roaming Chickens
Here are a few thing to consider if you are thinking about allowing your chickens to free roam.
The first is to have a rooster or two in your flock. We have two roosters in our flock and they are both great roosters. They never show aggression towards us, but they are very diligent in caring for their hens. I feel so much better about letting the flock roam freely knowing that the roosters will keep an eye on the flock. The roosters really serve an important role for us.
If you are letting your chickens roam free for the first time, make sure your chickens know where their coop is. It is important that they know where their home is so that they can have free access to it during the day, and so that they will return to it at the end of the day.
You should not bring new chickens home and allow them to start roaming free from the beginning. Keep them in a confined chicken yard where they have free access to the coop all day. After a few weeks you should be able to start introducing free roaming.
Make sure you are around and can watch them closely the first few days. The chickens will probably stay fairly close by to begin with. As they get more comfortable they will start to roam a bit farther.
It is actually quite amazing to me how easy it is to put the chickens up for the night. As the sun starts to set they all start hanging around the coop area together, then as it gets close to dark they all go in the coop on their own. We simply close the door and latch everything after they go in.
Also, make sure you still provide feed for your chickens. Free roaming chickens will eat vegetation and bugs while they are out wandering, but they will still need chicken feed to keep them healthy.
Water is also important. We make sure our chickens have access to water in the coop and also provide them with a bowl of water outside of the chicken yard. The outside bowl is defintely the more popular bowl during the day, and they drink a surprising amount of water.
In the right environment, allowing chickens to roam freely is a great option for the homestead. By weighing the pros and cons you can make the right decision for your chickens.
Do you allow your chickens to roam freely? I would love to hear about your experiences in the comments!