Monday, April 22, 2013

Roost Potatoes or Health Nuts? Facts on Free Ranging Your Flock



By Leigh -

* All chicken keeping situations are unique, so the information presented here must be tailored to best meet your own needs. 


Free ranging is one of the most natural and healthy ways for a flock to spend its days. Just a few of the benefits of free ranging are;


  • Exposure to plenty of sunlight – a natural source of natural vitamin D
  • Exercise - the ability to move and run to stay physically fit
  • The nutritional benefits of a wide array of bugs and vegetation
  • Chickens will pick up pieces of sand and gravel to help their gizzards work properly
  • Scratching and pecking in the dirt help keep beaks and toe nails from becoming over-grown
  • Free ranged flocks tend to exhibit fewer negative social behaviors like feather picking, bullying and cannibalism



Unfortunately not everybody has the perfect setup for a free ranged flock, but here are a few things that can make free ranging safer for your birds and less stressful for you.

Know Your Predators
Each area has its own kinds of predators. Talk to your local wildlife experts to find out what predators are the most common in your area. Some predators like owls, raccoons, skunks and opossums primarily hunt from dusk to dawn, and simply making sure your flock is secured in its coop during those times can mean fewer losses.

 (Coyote Photo courtesy of "Mellabella")

Fox, coyotes, weasels, hawks, bobcats, mountain lions/cougars, eagles and others are primarily daytime predators. Weasels are generally found around areas with lakes, streams and other sources of water. Weasels can fit in through spaces barely over an inch in diameter, and surprisingly, pose a higher risk to cooped birds than to those that are free ranging. If you do not have any bodies of water, weasels may not be a concern for you. 

 (Weasel Photo courtesy of "Stonykill")

Plan your set-up around your local predators. The methods that work for chicken owners in the Rockies will be totally different than those successfully employed by those in the coastal regions and so-on.

The Livestock Guardian Dog (LGD)
Nothing deters predators both in the air and on the ground like the presence of a dog! It goes without saying that most dogs need a bit of training before being set loose with your flock, but any time you spend training your dog for this job will be well worth the effort!

 (Photo courtesy of Kate Saunders - my sis!)

Certain breeds have been bred up just for the purpose of watching over flocks. The Great Pyrenees, Burmese Mountain Dog, Komondor, Maremma Sheep Dog and German Shepherd Dog are just a few of those breeds. These dogs often need surprisingly little training to become wonderful LGDs quite quickly. 


(Photo Courtesy of Aoxa of Les Farms)


Notoriously high-strung dog breeds (like terriers) and those that love to truly herd animals (like the Australian Shepherd and Border Collie) may need more training than other dogs to teach them to ignore their desire to chase, hunt or herd your chickens.

 (My LGD, Brandy Ann - an Olde Victorian Bulldogge)

That said, almost any breed of dog can be trained for the task. Dogs  – especially those that have a calm nature and a desire to please - will enjoy having this job and the feeling of importance they will get from keeping your birds safe. 

As a side note, donkeys and llamas are also known for deterring ground predators. 

Encourage the Crows
That’s right, the crows! Crows are wonderful at chasing away aerial predators like hawks. Encouraging crows to make nests nearby and hang out at your place may not be great for your vegetable garden, but it is wonderful for enhancing the safety of your flock! They don’t call it a “murder” of crows for nothing!


Electric Poultry Netting
For daytime ground predators, electric poultry netting is a great way to go. Manufacturers of this kind of poultry netting will tell you that a properly installed fence will deter a small bear. Coyotes, foxes and other ground-dwellers tend to stay well away after getting zapped a time or two.

Don’t worry – it won’t hurt your birds. Yes – they’ll get zapped, but unless they somehow manage to become entrapped in the netting, it will not do anything more than give them a bit of a shock.


Most poultry netting is very easy to install and very easy to move about to change the areas you allow your flock to range. While it may not seem like true free ranging if there is a perimeter around your flock, this fencing is surprisingly affordable and multiple sections may be put together to fence off large areas.

A little maintenance is required – tall grass or fallen branches can short out the electrical current, so regular mowing and upkeep is necessary.

See Google results for Electric Poultry Netting here.


Keep a Rooster
Roosters are the most natural form of flock protection there is. While the hens go about their business searching for bugs and tending their chicks, roosters keep their eyes open for potential danger. If danger is present, a rooster will often make a vocal call that the rest of the flock recognizes as a warning. This will send the rest of the birds running for cover. 

(Gunnar - my Swedish Flower Hen rooster)

Roosters have been known to race right into the face of danger when a hen is under attack by a predator, sacrificing himself to save his flock members.

Not everyone can keep a rooster – check with your local ordinances to see if they are allowed where you live.


Provide Hiding Places
Something as simple as a piece of plywood leaning up against a solid fence or an old dog house can provide your flock with good hiding places from aerial predators. Some even make small, makeshift tents for their birds to hide under – these also provide a good source of shade on those hot summer days. 

 (Photo courtesy of "armorfirelady")

Just having areas that allow your flock to “vanish” at the first sight of a distant hawk can reduce the number of fly-bys these predators make.

Fly a Flag… Or 10…
Some have found that placing a few flapping flags around the perimeter of the free ranging area can deter eagles, hawks and owls. Be sure to move them about the yard every so often so predators don’t become used to them.

 (Photo courtesy of Sstrantz / hiddenfarmstead.com)


Set Live Traps
If you have persistent predators like raccoons, consider investing in a “Have-A-Hart” live trap or two. Just don’t make these critters another farm’s problem. If you choose to release them, be sure it is far, far, faaaaaarrr away from other poultry farms!


Don’t Keep Food Out
Leaving food about only attracts vermin. Find a good place away from your flock to lock up uneaten feed until morning.


Domestic Dangers
Some of the most deadly predators to your flock are stray domesticated dogs. Know what animals your neighbors have and make sure there is no way for their loose dogs to come on to your property.




And Lastly –
Many old timers will tell you they have suffered the worst losses to their flocks when those birds were locked up – either in the coop at night or in a run where they could not escape a predator that found its way in. In a confined setting, your birds can not escape.

While it is true that a coyote or fox may kill a few birds from a free ranged flock, usually the rest of the flock will get into trees or hide in the mayhem. If a fox digs into your run, your losses could be much greater as the rest of the flock can not escape. 


If you must keep your birds locked up all day, make absolutely certain both your coop and run are constructed like Ft. Knox. Digging predators will try to dig under your fences. Coyotes can chew through chicken wire and raccoons can sometimes bend it just enough to reach in and grab the head or leg of an unsuspecting chicken. Weasels can get through holes barely over an inch in diameter and can devastate a flock in no time flat.

Know what predators pose the biggest dangers and design your coop and run to keep them out.

***

You will find that different chicken keepers will have very different views on free ranging. Having read many different views on free ranging prior to setting my flock loose, I had a lot of concerns.


Even after almost a year since my flock started free ranging, I still worry about the day I will experience losses from predators. I am sure it will happen – it is only a matter of time.

Yet – over this past year I have lost a number of birds… to injury and one to an intestinal obstruction. None have been lost to predators (knocking on wood like crazy right now).

 
I am lucky to have a wonderful dog who enjoys playing “Mamma” to my flock. The farm we are renting is on primarily cleared land, so predators like coyotes and foxes tend not to stray so far out of the tree line. None of the neighbors (other than our landlords) have dogs that roam, and the landlord’s dog seems to be fine with the chickens. We have seen opossum, but have made every effort to deter night predators by building our coops to keep them out. Last year we had a visit from a hawk when my first batch of chicks were young. Since that time, a large murder of crows has taken up residence in the area and I have not seen hawks near the house since.

My flock thrives with all the freedom they have, and I love watching happy chickens exploring the acreage around the farm. When the day comes that I do lose a bird to a predator, I know it will be hard… but I also know that the bird spent its days enjoying freedom, exercise and all the bugs and plants it wanted. And in my own attempt to find the most natural approach to keeping my flock, the ability to allow my flock to free range makes me happy. 


I know not everybody is able to free range their flock all day for one reason or another and that is fine too. We all have different situations and we must do what we truly believe is best for our birds.

Happy Chickening!

- Leigh
Comments

5 comments:

  1. There is nothing like having a free range flock.
    They are so happy and healthy and the eggs are amazing. A completely different food than when they were coop-bound.
    Our rooster has helped the ladies to become excellent at predator evasion (and we have all different kinds!). The flock that becomes predator savvy passes on these skills to their offspring, and a wise and cunning flock is maintained.
    Great article with plenty of things to think about.
    Thanks, Leigh!

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  2. nicely done Leigh. I just want to add one thing about the hav a hart type traps. You need to know your state laws before releasing an animal. In my state of NY it is illegal to release a wild animal without a special permit or face a $450 fine. Itis however completely legal to kill them.

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    Replies
    1. That's a great point, Tom! Every state has different laws concerning the release of wild animals. Thank you for bringing that up!
      Leigh

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  3. this is an excellent article, nicely presented. One quick note, in our area the coyote and weasel problem is a night time problem. We rarely see them during the day. Especially not anyone from the weasel family. we've seen them come to the water in the very early morning, but it's much more common to go out and find they've left tracks in the night. we hear the coyotes singing, but rarely see them during the day. Again, we find tracks in the AM. The big cats as well, we only have bobcats here, but we hear them at night. Let me tell you that will raise the hair on your arms... It may depend upon your area what time your local predators are active. Checking with your local cooperative extension and other local chicken peoples is probably your best bet!

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  4. Great article! I've really learned to let my chickens be chickens. I've lost a few to hawks, but overall they are o much happier outside. Watching them chase after bugs and dig in the dirt make me happy. I get the occasional visitor on my deck too. They don't always go in when I want them to at night, but I just wait for them.

    Judy

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