Are you interested in POULTRY?  Then you might find one of these articles handy:

Roosters A Plenty by Magdalena Perks

Put Your Poultry in Your Pantry by David Von Kroug

A Goose and Its Golden Eggs by Sherrie Taylor

What I Learned From Poultry by Diana Barker

Raising Chickens... From Scratch by Sheri Dixon

Easter Chicks Gone Bad: The Unexpected Menace, by Sheri Dixon

Getting Started With Chicks by Jan Hoadley

The How and Why of Free-Range Chickens by Regina Annealer

Born to be Wild: North American Wild Turkeys by Victoria Varga

Guinea Fowl: Something Different in the Garden, by Victoria Varga

Peacocks: Plumage and Personality, by Victoria Varga

Hens are Birds Too, by Faith Drummond

Going to the Birds! by Anita Gerber


The How and Why of Free-range Chickens

by Regina Anneler

If you have purchased eggs from a retailer recently, then you know that the most expensive eggs for sale are the ones known as “cage-free” or “free-range."  Why should these eggs have a higher value than the average commercial eggs?  Part of the reason for this higher value is because these eggs cost more money to produce; however, they are better, healthier eggs all the way around.  They have a higher nutritional value and the hens themselves are healthier than the caged birds kept under artificial light and fed a steady commercial diet.  True free-range chickens are those that range outdoors on pasture.  Meaning they do what all chickens do naturally: eat bugs, greens, and whatever leftovers they can scrounge or scratch up.  The challenge for the homesteader, however, comes in the form of keeping and managing a flock of free-range chickens in order to reap the benefit of their eggs.

The nutritional value of free-range eggs makes this challenge a worthwhile endeavor for the homesteader wanting to produce higher quality eggs for a healthier diet.  Recently, Mother Earth News did an egg study comparing free-range eggs to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) nutrient data for commercial eggs.  The findings showed that free-range chicken eggs produced the following results:
    • 1/3 less cholesterol
    • 1/4 less saturated fat
    • 2/3 more vitamin A
    • 2 times more omega-3 fatty acids
    • 3 times more vitamin E
    • 7 times more beta-carotene

Besides the obvious nutritional benefits, free-range eggs simply taste better!  The most likely cause of the differences between free-range eggs and those from caged, commercial-production hens is the diet the hens consume every day.  Basically, you are what you eat.  After all, the free-range chicken’s diet is all natural and varied, while the caged hen eats only what is placed in front of her.  Free-range hens are also usually healthier than their cousins kept in crowded cages in commercial poultry houses.  The feeds given to commercial hens are the cheapest possible mixture of corn, soy, and/or cottonseed meals, with many types of additives mixed in.  These additives often include growth hormones, meat and bone meals, as well as antibiotics and chemicals, like arsenic, to keep the chickens awake longer and producing more.  The commercial chicken has a much shorter lifespan due to stress, illness and general disease than does a free-range hen—unless, of course, the free-range hen falls prey to a natural predator.

This brings us to the how of raising free-range chickens on a homestead.  There are a couple of options available to the homesteader for keeping free-range hens away from common predators that can often quickly decimate an entire flock.  On our homestead, we have a large Anatolian/Pyrenees dog that lives with the chickens and helps to keep the predators at bay.  Be warned, however—if you chose to keep a dog as a guardian for chickens, it takes a considerable amount of time to train that dog not to be a chicken predator themselves.  Training a guardian dog for chickens can often unwittingly mirror the effort of training a retriever, especially when you return to the homestead one evening to see your favorite hen hanging between the wet, slobbery jaws of your security-guard-in-training.

Our homestead allows the chickens a basically no-holds-barred lifestyle.  They do not have a coop, per se, rather, they have a special roosting section in the barn.  Our hens come in at dusk and roost in the barn next to the goat pens.  We installed nest boxes in this same area for the hens to lay in, although they do not always cooperate.  They like the hay bales in the barn as an alternative area for laying, and we have been known to have to do the occasional egg-hunt out in the woods.

We started our flock by purchasing young chicks and putting them in heated stock tanks; eventually moving the chicks to small cages as they got older and no longer needed the heat.  Then, when they reached a large enough size, we placed the cages out in the barn below the chicken roosts, next to the nest boxes.  They lived there for 3-4 weeks, while we fed, watered, and cared for them.  After we were certain that they recognized this area as their home, we let them loose with the older hens.  This training ensures that they return to this spot every evening, thus protecting them from predators that would have an easier time catching them outside in the dark than during the daylight hours with their security guard nearby.  We also have three roosters with our approximately 50 hens.  Roosters look out for the hens, and each rooster has his own group of hens that accompany him out and about the homestead.  The roosters watch the sky for hawks, owls, and other predators that they recognize as dangerous.  These practices have worked well for us thus far, however, there are other means of keeping free-range chickens than the methods that we use.

Another option the homesteader has is to use portable chicken coops and runs.  Many homesteaders wish to keep free-range chickens but lack a barn and/or security dog.  An alternative for these homesteaders is the portable coop.  Portable coops can move about the homestead allowing a wider range-area for the hens.  If the portable coop is the security point for them, the hens will return each evening to be locked safely away at night.  If your homestead is still too dangerous to let hens runs loose during the daylight, don’t give upa modified free-range is still an option.  Not only can a coop be portable, but a run or pen area can be, as well. Portable fencing options are available to a homesteader with a little effort, providing a modified free-range approach.  Chicken-wire and plastic fencing have made this alternative a quick fix for many homesteaders.  A small fenced area made with one of the aforementioned fences and small, hand-placed electric-fence rods works well to rotate around the range every few days.  This option not only helps to protect the chickens from predators, but also helps to work and fertilize the ground for future growing spots that an organically focused homesteader might choose to use at later date.

No matter which type of predator protection you choose for your homestead, proper care and maintenance are still very important for your chicken’s health and egg production.  Chickens require water and need a source readily available while afield.  A natural creek or stream in the area is great, but if that is not available then you will need to keep shallow pans around the grazing area as a fresh source of water.  Depending on the weather and winter environment on your homestead, your chickens might need some type of feed supplementation in the winter months.  The best option for this would be some type of plain corn; chicken scratch is usually more expensive than chopped corn and often contains additives that simple chopped corn does not.  If feed supplementation is necessary, then try to spread it out around the chickens’ range-area so that they don’t get accustomed to the idea of just staying around the coop for a free handout.  Be warned, however, that once they get used to you feeding them, they will stalk you hoping for a free handout!

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