We have a huge chicken coop....no I mean, a huge chicken palace. There's a nesting area with roosts, boxes and a window. Then there's a covered area with lots of roosting spots. This is where we keep the grain and water. Attached to this is a huge fenced yard. We also have a separate yard that we can be accessed from the main nesting area. With all this, we still often open the main gates and let the chickens roam to their heart's content. The chickens love it when we open the gates. For me....letting them free range has the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly!
- I love watching them run around. They are so funny to watch them nip at this blade of grass, scratch a little and peck in the soil for a little yummy morsel. When they find a treat, the hens make this clucking sound letting the others know, "Hey, I found something!" The others all come running.
- Their yolks turn really deep yellow to orange color. The more varied their diet, the deeper the color of their eggs. I'm a believer of a variety of foods (for chickens and people) the healthier.
- They are great gardeners! The chickens love to scratch around the base of my established perennials and fruit trees. Sometimes it looks like someone pulled all the weeds and it is freshly raked!
- They leave little "presents" wherever they roam. These presents help supplement the soil.
- We live in a very rural area. Letting them roam means they are unprotected from predators. Our dogs often keep other animals at bay, but we have lost more than a couple of chickens to coyotes, stray dogs, bear, and even crow (our younger chicks.)
- If we keep them out for too many days in a row, they stop laying in their nesting boxes. Instead they find a hidden nesting area and begin stashing their eggs. We rarely find these hidden stashes and when we do we have no idea how long they've been there so we can't keep the eggs. Every once in a while a hen will appear with a new brood of chicks! This is always fun, but I'd still rather have them lay in their nesting boxes in the coop!
- While the chickens make great gardeners around established plants, they do horrible damage to a garden.
It only takes a few minutes for a flock to destroy a row of lettuce. Not only will they eat the whole plant, they will also dig up plants and throw dirt on anything around them. I've been saddened more than once on a completely destroyed garden bed. Usually once the garden goes in, we fence off the bed or we lock the chickens back up.
The Ugly: There's not a lot of ugly....but it does exist!
- Our chickens don't understand boundaries. They love to come onto our back porch and sun bathe.
Unfortunately, they leave more "presents" on the porch too! I've also found an egg or two on the porch. It's not an ideal nesting area, but it's almost like they are so comfortable sunning themselves they just can't be bothered to go find another place!
So this one isn't because the chickens are free range. But it is still UGLY....so I've included it! Often when I do chores, I will gather the eggs in a bucket. Sometimes I try to put them into my jacket pockets, or in my hoodie pocket. I can carry quite a few this way. However, if something were to happen...well a broken egg in my pocket is quite an ugly mess.
So what do I do? When the garden is planted, I do keep the chickens locked up. Sometimes I let them out in the evening. They have just enough time to run about and they are so interested in searching quickly for bugs that they don't nest on the porch, or dig up the garden.
They are only out for a couple of hours and when night falls they quickly return to their Chicken Palace. During the summer when I don't the chicken out, I often throw them weeds pulled from the garden or extra produce from the garden.