How to Free-Range Chickens with Supervision

December 17, 2012
Two fluffy butts free-ranging in the woods.

Other than a good dust bath, there is no other place that a chicken would rather be than free-ranging about their environment.   Chickens love to scratch in the dirt. They love to discover bugs, worms and tasty grubs as they explore their surroundings. However, most folks never free-range due to the risk of predators.  Those that allow their chickens to roam freely on their property accept and understand the risk of losing members of their flock from time to time.  This was not an option for me nor was it a risk that I felt comfortable with. One of the best solutions that I came up with three years ago was supervised free ranging.  Supervised free-ranging allows your flock to be out and about in the yard as your presence keeps predators away.

Some Benefits of Free Ranging
Better tasting eggs
Eggs with more nutritional value
Healthier, happier Hens
Toenail sharpening
Exercise
Prevention of bad habits such as feather picking
Prevention of boredom
Decrease in the amount of feed your flock consumes
Garden benefits include pest control, soil aeration, composting and weeding

Potential Daytime Predators of Free-Ranging Flocks
Coyotes
Fox
Hawks/Birds of Prey
Snakes
Bears
Dogs
Feral Cats
Cars
Humans

How To Supervise Free-Ranging
Depending on the size of your flock, you many need more than one person outside to help you supervise. It is impossible for one person to keep an eye on more than 10 chickens at one time. This extra set of eyes should be a person that could ward off a predator, not a young child.

1. The best hours for supervised free ranging are just prior to dusk.  This way, the chickens should automatically return to their coop/run as the daylight fades. Trust me, you never want to chase a chicken. Also, day time predators are returning home for their evening rest and the nocturnal predators are just beginning to awaken.  This is a transition time for them.

2. With a new flock, do not free-range until they have become acclimated to their coop and surroundings.

3.  Leave the door to the run open during free-ranging.  Some chickens will prefer to stay in the coop and run area. My littlest Silkie, Fifi,who is at the bottom of the pecking order, never free-ranges. Instead, she likes to have the “run of the house” while the others are out. Others will return to lay their eggs or take a sip of water.  It also allows the chickens access to their coop and run as they return home from free-ranging for the evening.

4. Train your chickens to know that you are in charge. Interestingly, the flock will free-range close to the head hen or rooster.  Either one will lead the flock to where they free-range.  Some breeds like to free-range farther from the coop while other breeds, like the Australorp, tend to stay close to home.

5.  Learn how to do the “alert/warning” flock call.  It sounds like a low rolling growl.  I do this if I see any predators near, such as hawks.  The chickens will respond to your alert.

6.  Never stray far from your free-ranging flock.  Remember, you are their protector.  Your job is to continually survey the skies and land for any potential danger. Leaving your flock even for a few minutes can make them vulnerable.

7.  Keep some treats in your pocket. This is a very useful tool in training chickens to avoid certain areas of the yard, have them follow you and lure them back into the safety of their coop and run.

8.  Remember to do a head count after everyone has returned in from free-ranging before you lock up the coop.

9.  Develop a free-ranging habit/pattern and your flock will become accustomed to the routine.  For example, my girls always free range while I clean the coop.  They are also used to free-ranging in the gardens when I am working in the yard. I lure them to the area where I am working with a tiny bit of scratch and treats.

10.  Check the foot pads of your free-ranging chickens regularly for any injuries such as bumblefoot.

The way you chose to manage your flock is a personal decision. There are many ways to raise chickens.  I am proud to say that there is a compromise when it comes to free-ranging.  Supervising free-ranging does minimize the risk of harm coming to your flock.  I am happy to share that many of those folks who were initially against free-ranging have tried my techniques and they too have become not only believers but advocates of supervised free-ranging.

Feathers checks on Fifi who chooses not to free-range.

Photo Credit:  Tilly’s Nest

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Melissa

Hello friends, welcome! Follow along on our chicken, beekeeping, gardening, crafting and cooking adventures from Cape Cod.

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21 thoughts on “How to Free-Range Chickens with Supervision”

  1. Great post! I do allow my flock to free-range, but I know the risk I'm taking. I'll be devastated the day I lose one to a predator. We've talked about making a larger run (which would be a better option)… I do have one more tip to add: #10 Always check the bottom of your shoes after your flock's free-ranging session!

  2. We finally built a large run around the coop for our girls as I was letting them roam the backyard freely but even two chickens are destructive. This is indeed the best option. They were out for about a half hour last night and loving it. I hated all the poopy too all over my patio. Yuck. That is gone now. They seem happy.

  3. My girls also free range while I'm cleaning the coop. I have a fenced in side yard where I let the scratch and peck. When I'm done I herd them back with a long stick. Now they are used to the routine. Before, herding chickens was like herding cats!!

  4. Other reasons why people choose not to free range include the scratching of mulch in the gardens and around the house, eating of valuable blueberry bushes and other shrubbery, eating the garden and pooping on the deck/porch etc. I do what you do, supervised free range in the evenings.

  5. Great post! We aren't comfortable with letting our chickens free range unsupervised either. It's harder now that the days are so short, but I like to let them out about 30 minutes before it gets dark just like you mentioned. They peck around a bit then are happy to go back to the coop for bedtime.

    Your tip about bringing treats with you is so true! If I'm needing to go back inside for some reason before they are all back in the run, I just shake my plastic cup that has some scratch or BOSS in it saying "Chickies!" and they all come running. Better than chasing them down, for sure 🙂

  6. I wanted to share a crazy story — I let my chickens free range when I am cleaning the coop out. Saturday my 6 year old son and I did just that — but even though we were not more than 10 yds away from the chickens, a hawk came down and landed on one of them. I ran towards the hawk and somehow picked up a stick to scare him or her off — it worked and all the chickens (I have 6) scattered. The chicken that the hawk had did have some puncture wounds but we brought her in and have kept her inside since to get over the incident and have her heal. It was very scary – mostly for my 6 year old son who calls his chickens "his girls". No more free ranging for a while 🙁

  7. This is great – we free ranged our chickens (with supervision) every evening after work all summer and fall, and not only was it great for them, it was great for me. Every evening, I would sit in the late afternoon sunshine with a book, just bonding with the chickens while they pecked around.

    Winter has been a bit rougher, though. What do you do when it gets cold? I've been sharing clippings from our cover crops with the girls, and their run does have a ton of fresh dried leaves, straw, etc… I still wish I could free range, supervised, without freezing my tookus off!

    • Hi there! It sounds like we are very similar. Cape Cod still has been lucky with temps in the 50s even 60s during the day even in December. Yes, the free-ranging is less when it is quite cold. I like to look for hidden opportunities to free-range such as when there are warmer days, days when I am cleaning the coop or run, days when I am shoveling the drive and walkways to let the girls out. Try providing them with boredom busters such as flock blocks, hanging pinatas from cabbages and the like help to distract the flock when they do not have a chance to go out. Winters are tough for all of us-our chickens included.

  8. I had started letting my chickens free range also…I have what we call a funky flock…a mix of all kinds. About 30 chickens in all…Well, my favorite 2 were my little polish crested…one was black & gold & I called her Who Dat…She actually would come running when I called her…One later afternoon as I was going out to do farm chores, I discovered that the yellow crested named Phyllis Diller was alone…the two were inseparable before…I discovered black & gold feathers & the legs…Needless to say I wept!!! Then the other day a hawk swept down & got another of my chickens before I could save it…several others just vanished…I am down to 24 now & haven't let them out of the protected coop/run area but once while I was out doing the chores…I am so devastated when I lose one. They all have names & a special place in my heart. I understand it is a way of nature but it still breaks my heart. I will try the late afternoon break time & pray for safety…

    • Thank you for sharing your story and your experience Crystal. It is so sad when we lose them to predators. Perhaps the supervised free ranging will work for you. Do keep me posted.

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Sharing an inspired life from the New England seaside. Chickens, Bees, Gardens, Art and Yummy Goodness.