The decision to free range your chicken flock is not one to be taken lightly. There are so many positives to having your flock happily roaming the property, picking and scratching the most nutritious bugs and plants they can find. Happy chickens, healthy chickens, and productive chickens are all things that come to mind when I think of a free range flock. The part about not taking the decision lightly? This is due to the fact that a significant amount of prep work is involved to ensure your free range endeavour does not result in a scattered, underfed and endangered flock.
At the very least, free range chickens need water, supplemental food, protection from the many predators that will enjoy an easy dinner, and of course motivation to ‘range’. While protection can come in the form of fencing or natural cover, the engineering of an environment to best suit your free range flock should be tailored to the size of your flock, the size and terrain of the range area, and the extent to which you want your flock to be wandering.
Size Of Flock
A smaller free range flock may be perfectly happy to roam their run, plus a segment of garden space customised for optimum chicken nutrition and taste preference. An appropriately built chicken coop and run is in order for keeping chickens enclosed. There are numerous DIY chicken coop ideas that can be built to accommodate every size of flock.
If a level up as far as space or complexity is desired, create a plan that involves a small herb garden section, some appropriate ground cover, and some shrubs. This will give choice as well as protection for chickens that have a larger area to roam.
Finally, armed with a lot of space, time and energy, a project that involves more or diverse acreage, levels of planting spanning from ground cover to specific tree planting, and several layers in between could be undertaken. The complexity of this scenario may serve the interest of a chicken farmer who intends to make free range foraging a large percentage of their flock’s diet, and give their chickens the most variety of space to live comfortably and perhaps more naturally.
Type of Crop
How about starting with an easy planting like a ground cover crop? Alfalfa, clover, mustard, buckwheat, rye, and legume crops, among many others, provide abundant feed for chickens. Cover crops generally grow quickly, and optimal height (around 3-5 inches) is reached for some of these in early spring.
This is a nutritious and easy way for your chickens to enjoy foraging in spring and summer, and a good way to start your free range system. Companies like Urban Farmer have entire pages dedicated to chicken forage seed. A quick Google search will lead you to its webpage with many different types of forage seed to choose from.
As spring moves forward, so does planting in our garden. We like to plant some herbs and easy lettuces near our chicken run then move a temporary fence to extend the run and incorporate the veggies and herbs into their range area. Timing is important here, as chickens will devour young plants at a surprisingly quick rate, so you’ll want to give them access to only certain planted areas at certain times.
A crop rotation sort of plan is a good idea. Another trick is to plant in tubs and then add the tubs to the run so that the birds don’t destroy the crop while it is establishing. Depending on your planting zone, you might want to plant some herbs like parsley, lavender, rosemary, sage, nasturtium, and fennel. Greens such as lettuce, spinach, kale, Swiss chard, and mustard work well and give your flock choices according to their individual palates.
Different chicken breeds will not necessarily impact the type of cover planted, so do so freely without the concern of breed type. Additionally, a combination of various grains planted as a cover crop, herbs, and greens broadens the nutrients the hens take in, and so transfer over to their eggs.
There is some planning involved in providing your flock with free range crops that can grow aggressively and also provide necessary nutrients. Though the importance of proper dieting for your flock cannot be stressed enough. The eggs we consume are directly impacted by the diet of our flocks, taking extra effort in providing a wide variety of veggies and herbs to a chicken’s diet is providing us with premium quality eggs and healthy chickens.