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Free-range Chicken Farming

Free-range chicken farming sounds like something that requires a lot of land, but it can be as basic as simply allowing your chickens to roam about the yard freely and consume food that is natural to their diet, instead of letting them eat only what food you buy and give to them. It doesn't have to be a large yard. Chickens are omnivores. They eat grass, worms, insects, native seeds and berries, and table scraps (best finely chopped).

Know the Benefits

Because of the wider dietary variety, the eggs laid by free-range chickens have much higher nutritional values. According to a study done by Mother Earth News, free-range eggs were better than store eggs, with the following results:

  •  less cholesterol
  • ¼ less saturated fat
  •  more vitamin A
  • 2 times more omega-3 fatty acids
  • 3 times more vitamin E
  • 7 times more beta-carotene

Free-range hens are generally healthier than those continually kept in cramped cages (like in commercial poultry houses). Part of that healthiness is because they are able to exercise their bodies a great deal more and part of it is because their diet is more wholesome. It's better for the chickens, which means it's better for you, whether you end up eating the chicken or the eggs.

Now that you know the benefits of free-range chicken farming, here are a few tips to keep in mind for doing it yourself.

Know Your Boundaries

If you live in the city, free-range farming might sound impossible, and it very well could be if you live in a concrete jungle; however, having a yard presents some possibilities. Give your chickens some free time to roam and forage in your yard every day, preferably for at least a couple of hours, but do keep a sharp eye out for predators. The free time gives them an opportunity to find those worms and insects and other tidbits that will add some variety into their diet.

If you have a big enough yard, using a chicken tractor rather than a stationary coop could well be a viable option. It reduces the impact of the chicken waste on the land and enables you to move them to a different portion of the property each day so they have a fresh area to forage. It also provides "built-in" predator protection since they remain under the mesh throughout the day, while still offering access to fresh air and sunlight.

Know Your Chickens' Needs

Always, ALWAYS make sure that fresh water is available, and in several places around the foraging area. It helps with their digestion and will aid in keeping them healthy.

Although your chickens will be foraging for food, you will still need to supplement their diet with some bought chicken feed, especially during the winter months. This ensures that they stay healthy and have enough energy and protein for regular egg-laying, or bulking up their muscle-weight if you intend to slaughter them for meat.

Keep the area clean! Change out any litter in the nesting boxes and enclosed spaces at least weekly, or bi-weekly if you only have three or four birds. Wipe down the roosts and scrub the water and food dishes so that germs won't be able to settle in and multiply causing disease and/or contamination. If your chickens have some waste buildup on their legs, don't be afraid to bathe them gently in warm water. One woman commented that her birds absolutely loved it when she used the hair dryer on their feathers (recommended in cold weather, I'm sure) after bathing.

Know When to Act

Check your birds physically on a regular basis to make sure they are staying well and do not have mites, lice, or other possible health dilemmas. For example, young chicks sometimes develop a problem called Pasty Butt. If you are familiar with their healthy appearance and how they are supposed to behave, then you will quickly spot any issues before they become major problems. Not to mention that your chickens, like any other animal, will probably respond well to positive affection and interactions.

Take action quickly when problems do arise, health-wise or otherwise. We have a number of articles available for dealing with a variety of problems from Chicken Bullying, when birds may take dominance issues too far, to Treating and Preventing Coccidiosis in Chickens, which is a common illness. Call a veterinarian if you need to do so.

Know Where to Get Information

Free-range chicken farming is not something you should feel you have to do on your own. There are plenty of other people out there doing this, and it helps to have a friend to talk with when questions come up. When you buy supplies at your local co-op or Tractor Supply Co., it should be natural to run into other chicken-raising folks. The American Pastured Poultry Producers' Association (APPPA) is a nonprofit educational and networking organization dedicated to encouraging the production, processing, and marketing of poultry raised on pasture (aka, free-range). The internet can help you find some county or state organizations as well, perhaps starting with your local 4-H or FFA if you have children or teens in your house.

Now, you should be ready to dive in and start doing some free-range chicken farming of your own.