freer ranging chickens

I am fairly certain, over the seemingly short time of this blog’s existence, that it has become quite apparent that I am a recovering Type A personality. I fight the need to have everything “just so” on a daily basis. I tended to spend hours mapping out any given action, as well as all its possible outcomes. Up until becoming the mother of two (because really, let’s be honest, now it’s just about surviving the day) I was notorious for being over prepared. “Oh, it couldn’t have been that bad” you say? Well here’s an example, our wedding had an itinerary, which was broken down by the hour for the entire day, so everyone knew where they were suppose to be and when. Kevin also had a list of all the luggage and other bits he was supposed to deliver to the hotel we would be staying in the night of the wedding. To answer the questions I know you are dying to ask, yes, Kevin’s family still makes fun of me for it and yes, Kevin still forgot a piece of our luggage which we had to drive back and retrieve before leaving for our honeymoon.

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Anyway, I am sure you are wondering what this all has to do with our chickens. Well, you see, when we initially ordered the laying hens Type A me ran through all the scenarios. They mostly consisted of buying 40 hens, them not imprinting on the coop and never coming home the first night and in my mind every coyote, fox and weasel in the area would be stopping by daily for a snack. We bought movable electronet poultry fence, Kevin built a huge chicken coop, which sits two feet off the ground and on wheels with car jacks attached to each corner to aid in stability when parked, allowing us to move it to new grass within our fenced in pastures when needed. We religiously tucked them all in at night, which at the beginning often meant catching one or two with Kevin’s bird catchin’ net, or what most normal people would call a pool skimmer. Nothing could dig into the coop, most likely nothing was going to traverse two layers of electric fencing to have chicken for dinner, however, we also felt like we were constantly moving a gigantic, and what turned out to be cumbersome, chicken tractor and chasing chickens indoors every night.

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Fast forward to this spring and we had a few dozen chickens who had entered winter laying over two dozen eggs a day and were now limping along with only a few eggs daily, even though the daylight hours were increasing (hum, maybe I should refrain from writing posts like this one and unwittingly dooming us.) They had plenty of food and water, a freshly cleaned out and re-bedded house. No one looked sick, there was no predator pressure and our two roosters were doing an excellent job of gathering everyone up at dusk and tucking them into bed for us. There was no reason for them not to be laying dozens of eggs a day and they all looked a little extra ruffled and seemed to be scuffling with each other a little bit more than usual. One day while preparing dinner and looking out our kitchen window, which has a view of our front pastures, I witnessed our one and only Brahma hen running frantically from one end of their fenced in area to the other, worm dangling from her beak and about 25 other chickens chasing after her. What followed was a scuffle, the Brahma frantically swallowing her snack, some random pecking and kicking and a bunch of chickens retreating to either under or into the coop.

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I got to wondering if they were just acting up and fighting with each other because they didn’t have enough space to wander in. They seemed to be acting like siblings who had been stuck inside for too long with too much energy and no way to release it and, in turn, decided to take it out on one another. The worm incident seemed to be that classic fight of “I want what she has and even though there are 20 other toys, I mean worms, on the ground no other than her’s will do!” So despite my concern, and control issues, we decided to take down their fence, trust that the boys would get everyone in at night and let them range as free as it gets.

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Almost immediately egg production steadily started to increase, everyone started to look sleeker and shinier and fighting reverted back to minor squabbles only once in a while. As of today, no one has ventured out of the pasture that the coop happens to be parked in, everyone marches into bed at dusk and we even witnessed our Speckled Sussex rooster, Brewster, calling everyone in when a particularly bad storm was blowing in.* Now we can roll the chicken tractor into a larger pasture and not have to move it within the week. Best of all, we no longer have to tangle with the electronet fencing every few days.

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I am shocked at how happy and content they all seem to be now and even though they have the whole world opened up to them they seem satisfied with taking just a little bit more space then they previously had and have shown no need to wander too far from home. Ah Ha! Another unlikely lesson in parenting learned thanks to farm life, I’ll be sure to file that one away for later. All of this did get me thinking, if my well-loved chickens were unhappy with just a quarter acre of space versus the full acre (and no fences) they have now, what do those poor chickens, who are crammed into hot huts with no windows, not to mention zero access to fresh grass to graze upon, feel like? Well, I suppose there in lies the truth of it all, this is the reason we make the sacrifices we do, to live this back to the land life of ours…we were simply in search of a happy egg.

* This is what happens when the kids are in charge of naming and the oldest is going through a “everything I say must rhyme” stage. Also, our Americauna rooster is named Wooster. Just wait until you find out what they named the new calf.

15 thoughts on “freer ranging chickens

  1. We have experienced this same problem. When the hens are allowed to roam free they manage to find their way into my flowers and garden (grrr…) but they are very productive. When we keep them contained they are snottly little brats and will eat the eggs they lay (out of boredom) before we can get to them. Houston, we have a problem!

    • As of now they haven’t found the garden yet…I have heard stories of them roaming the tomato rows and taking one bite out of each fruit. The day that happens we are likely to be having chicken for dinner! 😛 Glad to know their snotty behavior, due to being cooped up, wasn’t all in my head.

    • I love the colors! However, I have noticed it takes the Americaunas a lot long to start up and stay laying consistently…I guess everything has its trade off.

  2. Though i don’t have chickens I can relate as I can apply this lesson to so many things like raising children, wonderful, thoughtful post 🙂

  3. Great post! I have been struggling with the free ranging issue myself. My ladies are infinitely happier and healthier being out all day, and are adorably reliable about heading back to their coop at night and putting themselves to bed. They get along great, and there are no politics, even between the four new hens and my original flock. And, most importantly, the eggs! A universe of difference between eggs from hens in the run and hens totally free. BUT… I lost one beloved favorite hen to a hawk last fall and just lost my other favorite girl to a fox a couple weeks ago. Granted, those two ladies were the most elderly and frail and therefore the easiest pickins for predators, but still! It’s hard to know which is the right choice, as their guardian. Do I let them live happy but short lives and understand I will be replacing chickens regularly, or do I keep them safe but miserable in their boring run? Tough!

    • So hard! I think it’s a fluid thing. Right now we don’t have a lot of predator pressure if that was to change, I would definitely have to rethink our new set up, just like you. How did the meat bird experiment go? Did I miss the ending to that tale? 😉

      • I dropped the ball on posting about it. It was a great success! We’re definitely going to do it again, and with a little fine-tuning it will be even better.

      • That’s fantastic. Gives me a little more confidence in trying our hand at it. Can’t wait to read about your next go! 🙂

    • Thanks Caitlin! It is amazing and living here, with all these animals, seems to be almost daily reminder. They are always teaching me a new lesson.

    • Glad to know I wasn’t making their bad behavior up in my head! 🙂 Now I’ll keep my fingers crossed that they don’t venture into the veggie garden.

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