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First, it's important that a chicken gets comfortable with their home/coop. This way they know where home is and will go back there at dusk after being lose to free range. We have 12 acres and the chickens stay very close to their coop, or near our barn and house. We've never had a problem with them wandering off.
It was warm weather when we decide to transfer our chicks to the coop. They were still very small but they were flying out of the brooder and they did have most of their feathers. Our coop is very well built so no cool breeze could get in, and it was in the low 70's at night. We had 28 chicks at the time, and put down plenty of hay and bedding so they could stay warm. This gave them lots of time to get use to where they lived. I should mention some do put a heat lamp in the coop if it is too cold without it. This way chicks have the option to warm up under the lamp if they get too cold. I am a little scared of electricity in my animal pens but many people do design a safe, warm set up for baby chicks inside the coop. It can be done, just be careful.
Then Came The Fox!
One afternoon, around 12:30 pm, I went to let the chickens out. Because it was so late in the day I let my guard down, didn't take dogs or a gun with me. I opened the chicken coop door, the chickens piled out as usual, and I checked nest boxes for eggs. I grabbed the few eggs laying in nests and walked outside just in time to see a red fox chasing one of our chickens. Being only armed with an egg, I jumped in front of the fox and yelled at him. I think I actually yelled, "NO! Bad fox!" I can't really remember but thinking back I recall it was something like that. He had to stop so fast that he nearly slid into my boots and he was so close I could have kicked him. He was hesitating on whether to run around me to continue chasing after the chicken or leave. I yelled again and stomped my foot and he decided to run back into the bushes. I ran and grabbed my gun, went back to the same area, and shot my gun above the bushes, not knowing if he was long gone or still around. Guess what? He was still there and I saw him run toward the woods. He was too long gone for me to actually get a good aim and shoot him. However, I was hoping it scared him enough that he wouldn't be back.
Free Ranging Our Chickens
Yes, there is some extra work free ranging chickens but we do enjoy watching our chickens run around the farm. Our chickens are happy and healthy and we wouldn't have it any other way.
Since these attacks we've been a little more on guard, and so have the dogs. There have been several different situations where the dogs have chased off a predator. Couldn't do it without our dogs! Free ranging comes with it's challenges and we realize we may lose a chicken here and there. I would rather give back to the food chain than to keep the chickens caged full time. I don't like that a chicken might be taken, and I admit this setup isn't for every chicken farmer. We love our chickens and we enjoy them free ranging on our farm even though it can come with the occasional disappointment and sadness.
At about 17 weeks our chicks/pullets had their feet on the grass for the first time. Wow! Were they happy to venture out! The first time we let them out it was about 2 hours before dusk. We wanted to make sure in the beginning that we were close to watch over and supervise them. When it started to become dark, they all started going into their coop. We did gather a few up by hand, but most went in on their own. The next evening we let them out at about same time, but this evening one of the chickens refused to go in. She hid under the chicken coop and we tried unsuccessfully to catch her. She ended up staying out all night. I was really afraid we would lose her to predators, but luckily she was fine hiding all night. That next evening she was the first in the coop. Guess she learned her lesson.
November 11, 2015 by Marci LaFavers
You can lose a chicken anytime of day, as we found out the hard way. About three days after seeing the fox, at around 2:00 pm, I heard dogs, chickens and roosters all go crazy! I could tell something wasn't right by all the chaos. I wasn't for sure at that very moment but I had this fear that we'd just lost a chicken. Later in the evening when the chickens all went back into the coop, we did a head count and sure enough one of our California Whites was missing. Later, we found a pile of white feathers under some brush and some near the woods. We are not sure if it was the fox returning or another predator. This same thing happened again the following week and another California White came up missing. Then David decided to put out traps and he caught a few raccoons and opposums, but not a fox. I guess the old saying is true, "It's hard to out fox a fox".
When your pullets become hens and start laying eggs, you will start honing your Easter egg hunting skills. Hens like their privacy when laying eggs, and this is why occasionally we will stumble upon a nest of a dozen eggs hidden somewhere. In the beginning we would find an egg on the barn floor, in a rabbit nesting box we had randomly sitting on top of rabbit cages, way on top of bails of hay, or a pile of eggs in the garden after plants die back.
One way to encourage them to go back to coop to lay their eggs in nests is to keep your hens in coop a little longer for a few days. Maybe let them out at around noon instead of early in the morning. This is one way I solved this problem for us if I begin finding eggs in odd places. The chicken coop is about an acre away from our house and barn. This is where the chickens mainly like to hang out, so we also put a few nesting boxes in the barn just for them. This has helped a lot with keeping up with the eggs when they get a little lazy to walk all the way back to the coop.
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The Old Barn Homestead
Gardening with free range chickens has been a challenge. They love their veggies, and it is literally a race to pick your vegetables before there are bites taken out of each cucumber or squash. We do pick vegetables exclusively for the chickens to eat, but they will still go into the garden to eat off the vine. It is also hard to plant starter plants in our garden. Our lettuce and broccoli didn't stand a chance against the chickens nibbling and scratching around. We've decided we will need to build a fence around the garden.
When free ranging chickens this also means you share your space with them. Chickens are very curious creatures. They snoop around and get into everything. For some reason they love hanging out in our shop knocking over stuff and getting themselves into trouble like getting stuck behind the freezer. Chickens are smart and they now understand if I tell them to get out. They also know I keep their frozen bread treats in the freezer that is in the shop. Chickens determine very quickly where you keep their food.
We gradually felt comfortable having the chickens out all day. I usually let them out at around 9 or 10 am. We still only let them out if we are at home. We have a lot of hawks, foxes, raccoons, opposum, coyotes and bob cats in our area. So between our checking on them throughout the day, plus our farm dogs, we felt pretty comfortable with them free ranging with some supervision.
One of the most important thing you have to remember when free ranging your chickens to make sure you close the coop door at night. This is something we have been very careful to remember. You can almost guarantee you will lose chickens, even with farm dogs around, if they are left unprotected at night. A fox, raccoon, etc....can take them in a flash!
My normal routine in the mornings before letting out chickens is walking around area near the brush and trees with our dogs, and a gun in hand, to make sure there are no predators lurking in the thick trees and hopefully scare off any that are around. I always felt mornings and evenings would be the time you would get predators and afternoons were pretty safe. I was wrong!
Deciding to free range our chickens was a big decision for us. David had some experience raising penned chickens when he was younger with his grandfather, but we had never raised chickens before on our own, much less free range. We did a lot of research and tried to understand the "ways" of the chicken.