When you hear the term “Free Range” the natural thought is grass. However, given the definition brought about by lobbyist, free range means “access to” the outdoors. Access to what is the question? In some cases, access leads to cement pads. Cement pads that are not big enough to hold all the chickens in the house.
On the other hand, they actually get to step on dirt surrounded by a fence. No grass, because chickens are hard on soil and if you confine them to the same space the grass cannot recover. As long as the building has a door and the door can open the producer can call their product free-range. USDA for their part is trying to redefine the term and add the amount of time the animal has to be outside in order to combat the unscrupulous.
Done correctly chickens are tremendously beneficial to the soil. They cut down on bug populations and they leave fertilizer behind. The industrial food complex has seized on the USDA definition, raised their prices, calling the chicken “free range” when the chicken most likely has never set foot outside, or even came close enough to the door to get fresh air. You go into these large poultry houses and the smells can be overwhelming with ammonia being most prevalent. It is the environment that they live in that causes the need for anti-biotic and other medicines
How we free range as well as other small farmers is to let the bird out of the house at sunrise and then close the door at sunset. Once the chickens know where their roost is located, they will come home. Provided there has been no predation. Predation is one of the major problems with free range. There are the natural night predators that people know about, fox, owls, opossum, raccoons, coyotes, bears and others depending on the location. If your structure is sound you will not loose chickens at night, or at least we have never lost any at night.
Our losses have all come during the daytime and there are two reasons, dogs and hawks. Since we got Coadee, the dog attacks have stopped. The hawks on the other hand she is hit or miss with. I have seen her chase hawks barking as she runs after them. Then we have lost one or two while we have had her. As with every problem research and knowledge gathering came into play. I found that hanging CD’s up deters hawks. I called around and verified that yes indeed, hawks have acute eyesight and the reflections glinting off the CD’s bother them, so they tend to stay away from those areas.
Besides making the place look sparkling, we have not lost birds to any hawks. We have moved fifty more out on grass but kept them in the barn too long. How do I know this, the birds are not coming outside of their new home. The other day we did a forced evacuation but as soon as all were out of the trailer, they started to head right back inside. It was cold but the sun was out still one by one they all went back into the shelter. It has been three days and we might have ten outside.
Chickens are like that, they get use to an environment and they tend to stay with what makes them comfortable. That is why “having access to,” is so ridiculous. Chickens last maybe eight weeks before processing. If they have not gotten out by the fourth week, they are not going to be true free range. Unless of course we are talking about layers, given enough time and we will be chasing them back into the pen just like every other flock we have ever had. It is a familiar pattern but one that stills brings delight while watching them explore and get use to the great outdoors. That and Fer Coadee. They have known Fer Coadee since they got on the farm as day-olds. The peeps have seen her everyday twice a day since October. They do not know what she is there for but once they get outside the fence, of their pen, they will quickly learn.
Coadee enforces the boarders and keeps the layers close. As an added bonus, Coadee gives them a complete checkup before letting them go back to pen. Okay, she may be licking all over them and feeling their skin and feet but I prefer to see it as a health check. The layers see it as a reason to stay inside the pen.
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