To Free Range or Pen? That is the question.
The answer? It depends.
Let me digress a bit… My absolute favorite time of the day during my favorite time of the year is just after work in the Fall. I let my girls out of their pen to free range. Their excitement at wandering and getting to fresh greens and bugs is wonderful to see. Their cooing and bupping at finding something good to eat is calming. Their movement as a flock around the yard is soothing. For me, this is the most calming, most beautiful time of the day, even if it’s raining a bit. I could sit there for hours, watching them wander.
And the best part? They’re so imprinted on the coop, they go back in when it’s dark and all I have to do is close up.
So, if I, and the flock, enjoy this so much, why don’t I free range all the time? Well, last year I did. And while I enjoyed watching them roam the yard (and eat the bugs!) they ate my grapes. They tore up the little garden I had digging for bugs. They dug holes in the yard for their dust baths. They got into the neighbor’s yards and I was worried about dogs or my neighbor’s gardens being wrecked. And they had increased exposure to predators.
So this year, Mr. HenHouse and I (mostly Mr. HenHouse) built a fair-sized pen with 8 foot+ high fencing. The guineas are able to fly out, and rarely Big Red is able to make it out, but for the most part everyone stays penned — but not caged. (If I didn’t want anyone getting out at any time, I would put deer netting across the top of the pen.)
Now, I don’t enjoy keeping the flock penned, but I did get a great crop of grapes and tomatoes this year. And by manually feeding Japanese beetles to the flock and having the guineas roam, we still had relatively decent pest control.
And that’s why free range versus pen is a “it depends” question. It really depends on your set-up, your goals, your unique situation. Some things to consider:
- Do you have a garden? If so, can you easily chicken-proof it?
- Do you have neighbors?
- Can you keep predators out of your yard?
- Is your flock imprinted on their coop?
- Are you using your girls as part of your integrated pest management system?
- Do you worry about your girls?
And those questions are just the beginning. You have to evaluate your situation, your yard, your garden to see what works for you.
After this year, I have my plan: Pen most of the time and roam at dusk in early Spring and Fall. They’re not out long enough to get into the neighbor’s yards, but are still able to get fresh greens and bugs. I supplement their diet when penned with garden scraps, weeds, and Japanese beetles.
Now I have seen some ingenious set-ups where people have made tunnels for the chickens (or fenced the garden) so the birds can roam the garden eating bugs. Or they let the birds out for 30 minutes and herd them back into pen. And of course, chicken tractors, which I almost did. However, it all seems like way too much work! For me, my plan has the least amount of effort while keeping the flock safe. I still get some benefit for my pest control as well as the wonderful chicken poop.
What works for you?
Visit Chicks 101 as I’ve put a quick update on flock integration.