When feeding your chickens, it's important to remember that the things they eat will become the building blocks for the food you eat. This is why I can't stress enough the importance of giving your flock access to clean forage, healthy grass, and organic grain. A chicken with a poor diet will lay a poor quality egg; one just as anemic in color as it is in nutrition. If you don't have the space to provide your hens with a grassy area and fresh forage, then you may want to reconsider chicken-keeping, or at least put your project on hold until you do have the space. Hens are natural foragers, and denying them their natural instincts benefits neither you nor the flock.
What do chickens graze on?
On our farm, we don’t feed grown chickens any grain during the summer. They are entirely without boundaries, meaning that if they wanted to— I suppose, in a world free of predators—they could walk all the way to town. But because predators abound, because chickens are unaware of the concept of town, and in spite of the lack of fence, they stay close. In the summer, they have many acres of pasture, vegetable gardens, and the woods at their disposal. They meander about these areas, constantly eating bugs, scratching through the leaves for grubs, and delighting in the bounty of earthworms in the garden. Others wander over and scratch through the crumbs of organic barley mash left behind by our pigs, while the adventurous ones peck through the horse hay for any remaining seed heads. Any grain we put out would more likely be gobbled up by a farm dog or cat than by our hens, which have the world at their disposal.
Why free range your flock?
Chickens need a varied diet in order to live long, healthy, productive lives. They are not merely egg vending machines, but living, breathing, odd, cooky creatures and natural foragers that love and benefit from grass and fresh air just as much as their keepers. If you don't live on a farm or have many acres at your disposal, a completely boundless flock probably isn't the best fit for you. Most likely, you'll need to fence your hens in or out of certain areas, and the way you go about this will depend entirely on your plot of land. Ideally, your backyard will be fenced in to keep predators at bay, but not so tightly fenced that the flock can't roam free within the confines of the backyard. If given the opportunity, chickens will scratch and peck their way to any food available, whether or not you provide it; it's in their nature and in their bones. For this reason, it's just as important to offer them the opportunity to express their instincts as it is to offer them a steady source of feed.
How to mitigate the risks of free ranging your hens
Free ranging your hens with absolutely no boundaries has its downsides, but there are many ways to combat them without compromising the happiness and wellbeing of your flock. These risks include:
- High mortality rates
- Hidden eggs
- Hen-pecked gardens
- Destroyed grass and land
High mortality rates
Chickens left without the explicit protection of a fence will be taken advantage of by nearly every animal in the kingdom. We try to mitigate mortality by keeping forest boundaries mowed to eliminate brush cover for foxes, by closing the hens into their coop at night, and by including roosters in our flock. Knowing which predators to look out for and how they may strike is half the battle.
Hens tend to hide their eggs if given the freedom, so it's important to set aside extra time (or get some help from the kids) for daily egg collection. If you have dogs, they will inevitably find them, but will probably remain tight-lipped about their exact location. To mitigate this, we have created several nests (in addition to the ones in their coop) around the farm where we know the chickens enjoy laying.
Since our hens are not fenced in, we do have to fence them out of several locations; specifically our gardens. In a perfect world, your chickens might venture into your garden and eat up all of the bugs and caterpillars wreaking havoc on your crops. This would be grand situation, leaving you with no pests and lots of eggs. Unfortunately, chickens quickly find they enjoy the taste of kale, berries, tomatoes, and all the other bounty in your garden, and in minutes, you'll be left with a sad row of empty stems and ripe tomatoes riddled with bites. Hens also love to scratch for worms, so anything that has been newly seeded will be kicked hither and yon.
To fence our chickens out of our gardens, we use a hodge podge of materials. There are many relatively inexpensive options out there that both keep the hens out and don't clutter your view of the garden. Fencing that comes in dark green or black at about 18 inches tall is a great choice if you want to avoid your garden turning into an eyesore. Another option is to switch to raised beds that hens can't reach. For other areas such as your porch or deck, a simple gate at the foot of the stairs will keep your chickens at bay.
Destroyed grass and land
If you leave your hens fenced into one side of the yard for a long period of time, you'll quickly see your land start to deteriorate. Grass will “burn” from the ammonia in such a high concentration of chicken poop, vegetation will be scratched bare, and that part of the yard will soon serve no purpose other than as a space for your flock to stretch their wings. This is where rotational grazing comes into play: on a regular basis, move your fencing to different areas of your yard in order to give each section time to regenerate itself. If you must keep your hens in an enclosed run, consider moving it at least twice a year, but ideally as often as every week.
Curious about what to feed your flock on a regular basis? Read on to learn what types of feed, supplemental ingredients, and kitchen scraps chickens can eat.
A note from Pete & Gerry's: For generations, our family of farmers at Pete and Gerry’s Organic Eggs has been dedicated to revolutionizing the way eggs are produced in the United States. We believe that consumers deserve better eggs from happier chickens living on small farms run by fairly paid farmers, and that’s what we have dedicated our business to. We also believe deeply in the transparency and verification of our standards, which is why we became a Certified B Corporation in 2013. It’s also why our farms meet the rigorous Certified Humane Free Range and USDA Certified Organic standards. We take the welfare of our hens, the sustainability of our farms, and health and happiness of our partner farmers and consumers very seriously. The resulting eggs are ones that stand out in the supermarket; they remind consumers of the eggs from their childhood farms and excursions abroad in Europe. And we're happy to be second best. In fact, we believe that everyone deserves a chance to raise hens right in their backyard and experience the joys that come with raising and growing food at home. Kate MacLean of Longest Acres Farm is here to tell you how.
Kate MacLean lives and works on 120 acres of land known as Longest Acres Farm in Chelsea, VT with her husband Nick, son Leland, and daughter Amelia. As an ex-city-dweller, she gained valuable experience working on friends' and neighbors' farms before making the move to rural Vermont with her family in search of a fulfilling, self-sustaining way of life.
Her breadth of experience in farming and raising countless varieties of chickens and other livestock on Longest Acres Farm not only makes Kate an expert in her field, but an advocate for home grown food and self-sustainability.