Free range farming chickens on open fields, respecting their needs

Free range farming chickens on open fields is a common desire for many farmers who have a green area where to set their animals free during the day. Today, I would like to examine the several pros (and some cons…) of free range farming for our animals.

First of all, I would like to clarify a concept: the wording “free range farming chickens” has different meanings depending on the fact that it relates to commercial or amateur activities. If you buy eggs at the supermarket which are marked with the aforesaid wording, it means that the animals were farmed in open-air corrals, often tree-lined, with a maximum theoretical density of 1 head every 2.5 square meters of soil (minimum). As for family activities, open-air farming of chickens and hens usually means setting the animals free on pasture about over a more or less large area, which allows them to behave and live according to their specific nature.

What is the approximate minimum size for good pasture? Exceptions may apply according to the nature and the features of each breed; in general, keeping a density of 1 head every 2.5 – 4 square meters of soil means assuring that the animals have the strictly necessary space for full well-being, but no grass will grow. Indeed, the chickens will continuously scratch, thus removing the vegetation mantle within a few weeks. Therefore, it is better to consider larger spaces, equalling at least 10 square meters per head, which will allow you to keep vital grass.

A good pasture area for free range farming chickens should be tree-lined, in a way to shelter the animals from the sun and bad weather conditions. The most suitable trees include local non-resinous species, such as maples, oaks, willows and poplars, but an ideal solution also includes all fruit tree varieties that do not need chemical treatments, such as for example khakis, medlars, kiwis and strawberry vines. The grass should include vegetable species that are tasty to chickens, such as clover, dandelion, plantain, goosefoot, etc. You can further enrich it by sowing chicory, cabbages and salad in some areas.

Free range farming chickens on open fields implies a range of considerable benefits for the health of the animals.

But, what are the advantages for your animals when living in the open air? Let’s examine them together:

  • Less stressed birds. Keeping the animals in spaces that are too restricted may increase the risk of pica and cannibalism, in addition to aggressive behaviours. Farming chickens and hens in the open air reduces the aforesaid risk as pasturing has a natural anti-stress effect on this type of animals.
  • Better general health conditions. The chickens that are farmed in the open air usually grow sturdier and more resistant, and better adapt to the local climate. For example, it is more difficult that young chickens fall ill with coccidiosis if they are farmed on pasture. In addition, their muscles develop in a better way and build up less fat.
  • Generally speaking, the animals are better nourished. In case of too narrow corrals, the weakest animals can suffer from the rigid hierarchy of pecking at the time of feeding, thus not eating enough if the food quantity was not calculated in a careful way. On pasture, it happens rarely, as the animals have much more space to feed far away one to the other.
  • high-quality animal proteins available. When pasturing, chickens and hens will catch insects, invertebrates and other bugs, thus assuring a good deal of good quality protein food. Then, if you farm them in an orchard, they will remove all parasites they can reach from your fruit trees.
  • Better tasting eggs. At organoleptic level, the eggs of chickens that are bred on pasture are tastier and (thanks to the carotenoids that are contained in lawn herbs) have a more intense colour, as well. In addition, it was demonstrated that they have an increased content of vitamin A, vitamin E and omega-3 fatty acids.
  • Savings on the feeding. Farming chickens in the open air will strongly supplement the diet of your animals. If you provide grain only in the afternoon, they will eat less of it as they will have already partially become satiated on pasture.

So, is it everything so easy? Well… not exactly. Let’s see also a few problems that are connected with this type of farming.

The fox, one of the most dangerous predators of our chicken coops.

  • Predators. Our animals on pasture will be more exposed to the attack of dogs, birds of pray, mustelids (marten and beech-marten) and foxes. Not to mention the rats! Unfortunately, it will be likely to loose some animals due to the carnivores that live in the country, if we farm the chickens in the open air.
  • Parasites. If, on the one hand, the health of the chickens will improve, on the other, farming chickens and hens in the open air will expose them to the contact with wild birds, such as doves, pigeons and sparrows, which (attracted by poultry feeders) may transmit various types of parasites. In addition, if there were recent cases of avian influenza in your area, the excrements of ill wild animals (such as ducks) may come into contact with your chickens, thus endangering them.
  • Damages to the garden. If the fences are not high or the spaces are connected, the chickens may move from the pasture to the garden, thus causing serious damages to ornamental plants.
  • Where are the eggs? The hens on pasture often find sheltered and safe areas between bushes and plants to lay the eggs, ignoring the artificial nests. It may be difficult to find them all.
  • Bad weather and adverse climatic conditions. Many chickens farmed on pasture like to sleep in the open air on tree branches, heedless of climatic conditions. However, tolerating a slight rainfall is extremely different than surviving a violent hailstorm.

So, what should we do? As far as the predators are concerned, it is important to assure sturdy fences, even if sometimes it can be very difficult, especially in case of mustelids and birds of pray. For free range farming chickens, a two-meter high net, buried for 50 cm and with upper edges that protrude outwards of about 50 cm, will keep foxes and stray dogs away if they are a problem within the area of your poultry farming.

Feeders and tank drinkers are very useful in case of open-air farming and limit the contamination by wild animals. Picture of Erik Colombo, specimens of Lara Massaiu.

Then, it will be useful to provide food and water to the chickens in a way that the sparrows and other birds cannot contaminate them with their excrements. Accustom your poultry to feed inside the night shelter or protect the feeders and the drinkers against bad weather and birds passing by using ad hoc roofing. The best models are tank or hopper types, which limit the contamination by wild animals. Among the different models manufactured by Novital, we recommend the GOLD 30L drinker and the Kubic premium 40L feeder, which assure good food and water reserves for your animals.

It will be necessary to periodically deworm your animals and control that there are no symptoms of illnesses, such as coryza, which, in wet weather conditions, may also affect animals that usually sleep outdoors.

With minimum effort, you can help your animals to exploit the life on pasture, assuring them a better life, which is more suitable for their ethology. Enjoy your free range farming chickens!


See also: Deciding to free range your flock

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