Raising your own chickens for eggs and meat is one of the first steps for your new homestead, right? I call chickens the gateway drug! Trust me, you start with chickens, then you move on to goats, then pigs, then cows, then who knows what else…. and your husband and kids are like “Please stop! We don’t want anymore chores!” Seriously, this has NOT happened in my life- ha!
I’m here to give you the lowdown on all things chicken, but since I could probably right an entire BOOK on it, in this post, I’m only going to really touch on laying hens, and the pros and cons of free range chickens, K? I grew up on a dirt farm (as my dad liked to refer to it), which meant we grew crops, not animals. I learned how to drive tractors, trucks and combines. This farm used to be the biggest chicken farm in Kansas, though, when my dad was growing up! Yup, my grandpa had like 20,000 chickens at one point. These chickens were egg layers, so they didn’t get butchered for meat (until they were past their prime and then they were turned into chicken soup).
That was my legacy and I think a little bit of that chicken farming rubbed off on me 😉
Also, growing up, my mom usually had a few (anywhere from 25-50) chickens and it was up to us kids to do the chicken chores- gather eggs, feed them, etc. These chickens were kept in one of my grandpa’s old chicken houses and were NEVER let outside. I HATED them!
Yup, you read that right! I, who love all things chicken, HATED them growing up!
That chicken house was dirty, dark, and dusty. The chickens were mean (especially one I nicknamed Ms. Bare Neck because she was missing her neck feathers and she pecked so hard you needed welding gloves to gather eggs!).
So, after I got married, I decided I wanted my own chickens, because that what all farmwives do, right?
I put my chickens in my mother-in-law’s old chicken house.
And promptly got pregnant with twins.
Because I couldn’t handle taking care of chickens at that point (it was a rough pregnancy), I gave them to my mom.
Several years later, I inherited a few chickens from a friend of mine. Long story, but they ended up living outside and running around my yard.
You know what?
THE EGGS WERE FANTASTIC!!!
I hadn’t ever seen anything like it!
Deep, deep orange yolks and the flavor! My goodness!
And that was the beginning of my newfound love of chickens and free ranging them and I have never looked back!
I’ve been raising free range laying hens now for somewhere around ten years, I think? Here’s what I’ve learned:
1- They don’t require a fancy shelter. Since they don’t spend much time in it, they really just need something basic to protect them from the weather and predators during the night. I’ve done a variety of things from converting an old grain shed, to putting them in the Egg Wagon (see pic below) to housing them in their current place that Jeff built. In southern Kansas, the biggest issues are severe storms and wind, and predators, such as coons, hawks and coyotes. Our winters aren’t particularly cold for super long periods, but we do get extreme heat in the summer.
2- They require a lot less feed, which keeps costs down. Because they are free ranging, they pretty much find their own food, at least during about 9 months out of the year (spring, summer, fall). I typically supplement them with a little bit of layer feed during the spring and fall when nutritious food items are quite as plentiful for them. I do this by just throwing out a few scoops of feed for them. Usually during the summer they don’t require any extra feed!
3- The eggs are A-MAZING!!! And this, folks, is my biggest positive reason for letting my hens free range! They are a deep, dark orange, not the sickly pale yellow of conventional eggs. They are also more nutritious! Free range eggs have 2 times more omega 3s, 3 times more vitamin E, 7 times more beta carotene and 4-6 times more vitamin D!
4- The hens are healthier. Seriously, when they are allowed to live the way God intended with plenty of fresh grass, air, and sunshine, you don’t end up with diseases or parasites.
5- If you have other livestock nearby, free range chickens can lessen the fly pressure. They like to scratch around in the manure and eat the fly larvae, which means fewer flies, which is DEFINITELY a big plus! We saw this in action last summer with our horses. Our horse pen backs up to the chicken house, so the hens were out there all the time. We didn’t have much of a fly problem. My sister-in-law, on the other hand, who lives one block away, struggled with flies on her horses all summer (she ended up getting chicks last fall to help with that problem!) This can also work with cattle, but you need A LOT of chickens to make a dent in a large pasture of cows.
Now, what are the cons of free range chickens? Well, believe it or not (after all of my raving), there are a few…
1- You may have awful losses to predators. This is probably the biggest problem for free range chicken owners! Even though my chickens get shut up at night, they still get occasionally picked off at dusk. Our two Great Pyrenees generally take care of most of those problems, but we still lose some. My sister-in-law has a horrible owl situation at her place! Her free range chickens get picked off left and right. I’ve also lost a lot to dogs, namely, my in-law’s black lab, Joey. He’s gotten better, but he will kill a chicken about once a month….
2- The chickens will poop in undesirable locations. If you have your free range chickens anywhere near your house, they will poop anywhere you walk or on things that you’d really prefer they didn’t! When I had hens out in a pasture away from the house, that obviously wasn’t a problem. So, keep this in mind if your chickens will be anywhere near your house.
3- They have access to your flower beds and garden. Now, sometimes this can be a good thing (they can take care of bug issues you may have!), but more often than not they are rather destructive. My free range chickens have scratched out my newly planted strawberry bed, eaten perfectly good tomatoes, and dug up potatoes.
4- They may lay in hidden nests. This is something else I learned the hard way! I figured if I gave them nice nesting boxes, then that is what they would naturally lay in. To be fair, most of them do. But occasionally, you end up with a rogue group and then weeks (or months later!) you stumble upon a nest of eggs of unknown ages.
Even though there are obvious disadvantages to letting your chickens free range, I think the advantages far outweigh the disadvantages (that’s my former high school debating self coming through…).
What do you think? Do you free range your chickens or keep them in a chicken house?