When we moved to our New Homestead in NH (check out this post about that move) we chose not to free-range our chickens. This post describes our solution to having happy, healthy, grass-and-bug-eating chickens without having them run free all over our property (not that there's anything wrong with that, it just doesn't work for us).
So why don't we free-range?
Mainly, predators. We live on 8 acres in the North Country of New Hampshire in a farming/rural area, so predators are a big problem here. Even with a properly constructed coop and run, not all chickens in the area are immune to the lone owl, hawk, bear, fox or coyote.
Also, the gardens. We expanded the gardens this past year, and during our short growing season we manage to harvest enough produce for ourselves, our family and neighbors as well as extra to sell. We also grow a lot of root crops, garlic and preserve enough food to stock our root cellar for the long winter. Since our gardens are so large, fencing them in to keep the chickens out would cost us a fortune!
The main garden, fencing this in just wasn't realistic for us.
So what is one to do when you feel strongly that chickens should be on fresh grass in the open air as much as possible?
You task husband with building a portable coop and you get yourself some solar-powered electric netting!
The electric netting has stakes that push right into the ground.
Now, there are quite a few methods out there to build or buy portable coops that can be moved around to fresh grass at intervals, from "chick-shaws" to small portable greenhouse-like structures. Click here for a posting on BackYard Chickens with lots of different styles and plans.
This specific project started out as an old boat trailer that we got from friends for free. Husband took his handy dandy metal grinder and cut it up into a smaller, lighter frame that could be moved with our ATV (or by hand if necessary). No welding here, he just cut the back of it off.
Here you can see the frame being built, on the small end is where the nesting boxes are.
To build the floor he used re-claimed wood from our every-growing spare wood pile, and the rest he patched in from some pallets we broke apart. We built 3 small nesting boxes to keep them from laying eggs all over the lawn, made the roosts from fallen tree branches, and enclosed it all in metal hoops with chicken wire draped over and stapled in place to the wood frame. In the back we added a tarp to protect them from the elements at night.
Here's the final chicken tractor, we just roll it around or attach it to our ATVs hitch. The tarp can roll down to cover the sides in rain if needed.
We have about 15 chickens that fit in here comfortably.
We move the coop to a new spot then surround it with the electric netting (to keep them contained and protect from predators), connected to a solar charger. We move this whole set-up about every 2-3 days in the Spring, Summer and early Fall (basically whenever there is no snow on the ground and the grass is still green) and the girls (and lone boy) get access to fresh grass and bugs for about 3 seasons out of the year.
-Money: cuts down on feed costs
-Health: fresh air and grass/bugs for them
-Boredom: frequent change of scenery (chickens seem to get bored easily)
-Predators: the electric netting helps protect from predators, and at night we close them in the coop for safety
-Fresh Grass: moving them around the property lessens their impact on our grass, it grows back in between rotating them around.
-Logistics: moving that much netting around certainly takes a method, it took us a few tries to figure out the easiest way not to get it tangled! (see the pic above, folding it seemed to work best).
-Water: getting water to them when they're on the back of our property (8 acres) -- for this we got one of those 50 gallon plastic food-grade containers and we strap it to our ATV cart and park it wherever they are to refill their water container daily. When it gets empty we hook it up to the ATV and truck it up to the house to fill it.
-Distance: we have to trek farther to lock them in at night and get the eggs, we use the ATV to move around on our property so it wasn't that big of a deal, but is certainly less convenient than having them right next to the house in their main coop.
-Space: in order to prevent total decimation of the grass, and fresh grass all season, you need a fair bit of space and a plan for rotating them. Although, if I really calculate out the size of their area and how often we move them, I bet you could easily do the same on about an acre or less.
During the winter we move them back into their main coop and permanent runs and we're able to add tarps and plastic to make the negative 20 weather a little more bearable for them(while still ensuring air circulation in the coop, something very important to their health). We use the deep litter method in the coop, which adds a little heat in winter as well.
During the summer growing season, when they're not in their two permanent runs we grow a variety of stuff in them so that when they are moved back they have some greens and treats for a little as the snow begins to fall.
When the temperature drops and the grass starts to die-back they go back to their main coop and runs, and once they eat everything we've grown in there to the ground, we chuck a bunch of straw down and they get all the Fall greens from the gardens we have:
Here are the chickens eating the tops of our brussels sprout plants.
Do you free range your chickens? How do you keep them out of your gardens?