If you keep chickens, or are considering keeping chickens, there are many things to consider before you dive right in. I have had experience with chickens in a coop, and I have had experience with free ranging hens. I prefer to let my girls free range, it is a more natural approach to keeping them, there is less upkeep as far as keeping the coop clean, and they can forage. However, they are also more susceptible to predators and have less of a tendency to use the coop. Below are some of the reasons you may want to keep your girls in a coop vs letting them free range your yard.
- The Coop: My girls (who free range my ~1/3 acre back yard) very seldom use their coop except for the fact that I have their food inside of it. They have taken to roosting underneath of my back deck, and they even lay their eggs in random places now. Having a coop with a run will keep your hens in line, affording them only one location of YOUR choosing to nest and roost. If you don’t mind going on an egg hunt every day, or don’t mind your girls roosting on your fence or a back yard fixture such as a swing set, then by all means let them roam. I have seen a couple people who allow free ranging during the day, then lock the hens up at night. This is a good method as it keeps them safe during sleeping hours, and they are more likely to lay in the coop than anywhere else because it is where they feel comfortable.
- The Run: Because the dogs kept getting into the chicken’s food, we now have a “chicken run,” basically the entire underside of my deck is fenced off so that the chickens can get in & out, but the dogs can not. Regardless if your chickens free range or not, they should have a run that is protected from predators, or sneaky dogs. Having a place to escape to is very important, so a run should be provided regardless of how your birds live. If your run is attached to a coop, it is a good idea to have a system of rotation (whether it is in the form of an addition or a mobile run) so that your hens can get at fresh grass and forage for bugs.
- The Feed: I have somehow acquired six chickens, five hens and a rooster. I started out with four; one of my original four was killed by a dog and the other, I believe, has abandoned us for my neighbors flock(?). Then we get some of the neighbors stragglers, I assume. Anyway, I have noticed that my girls (and boy) are only really “on the feed” hard during the winter months when there is much less to forage. In the summer, when bugs and tasty plants are present, they hardly eat any of their crumbles. I have them on 18-20% protein crumbles. They are not supplemented with oyster shells or gravel as they can obtain these benefits from free ranging the yard. They are supplemented with a scratch of oats and BOSS (black oil sunflower seeds). They also get egg shells which they love. Additionally, they get kitchen scraps and some fruits and veggies (they LOVE bananas, strawberries, and blueberries). I have noticed that with my father’s hens (he has four barred rocks who are in a coop), they devour ANYTHING that you put in there. My girls are more picky, they tend to not prefer leafy greens, I assume because they forage for them all day.
- Maintenance: With my hens, I have never had to clip nails, I have never had to deal with them fighting or hurting one another, I have never had anyone eating their eggs, and I have never had difficulty introducing a new chicken. This is all due to the fact that they behave more naturally, and they have the space to get away from one another if need be. It can be difficult to introduce new birds in coop situations because there is a strict pecking order, and if a newer hen is out of line, the others may go after her and kill her as she may not be able to get away. If you are cooping your girls, make sure there is plenty of space, and if you want to introduce new birds, do it slowly. I DO clip my chicken’s wings, otherwise they fly the fence and get into my front yard and my garden. This is not something that is difficult, though not something that is necessary with hens kept in a coop.
- Predators: I can not say whether or not coop-kept hens are safer from predation or not. We have cats, hawks, opossums, and dogs as major predators in our neighborhood. I have only lost one chicken to a dog, an error on my part, and we lost two chicks (one to a dog and one, we assume, to a hawk). I like having the rooster around because he keeps a good eye on the girls and will hurry them to safety if he senses danger. As long as your coop is formidable, you should not have any issues with predators. Make sure it can not be dug under, climbed over, or chewed through and you should be golden.
- Enrichment: I generally do not have to “enrich” my girls time as they do whatever they want during the day. However, coop-kept hens should be provided enrichment, possibly in the form of a flock block, or cabbage tied on a string, etc. Some coop-keepers will plant a “chicken garden” which are basically just 2x4s with a piece of hardware cloth on top so that the grass can grow and the hens can feed on it when it reaches a height above the wire, however they can not trample it down and kill it. Be sure that your chickens have some source of entertainment if you are keeping them in a coop.
All in all, each person will have their own reason for how they keep their hens. Some people may not have the ability to let their chickens free range, others simply may not want to. Do what works best for you and whatever is the best way to keep your girls safe and happy.