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What Are Free Range Chickens?
Before discussing free range and how much room do you need for chickens, a proper understanding of what qualifies as free range is necessary. According to the USDA, free range chickens are those chickens raised in an environment where they are allowed access to outside areas. Such distinction encompasses a broad range of possible environments.
To label meat or eggs as “free range," producers simply have to show the USDA that their birds are allowed access to the outside. Nothing more, nothing less. It does not mean they must remain outside at all times. In fact, most producers, whether factory or homestead, recommend against allowing chickens unfettered access to the wild.
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Free Range is Not Rocket Science
Choosing free range and determining how much room do you need for chickens is not an exact science. There is no set in stone formula. Most free range chickens do not receive the majority of their sustenance from eating afield. They require supplementation in the form of organically grown corn, feed from a feed store, or other suitable options year round. As such, you can just as easy keep a few dozen hens on nothing more than an acre of land as you could five or ten acres. The only difference rests in how much you have to supplement their natural diet.
Domesticated birds such as chickens, turkeys, grouse, and similar species, while retaining much of their natural instincts, are not breed for roughing it on bugs, beetles, and wild vegetation alone. These creatures have long been bred to be dependent on man for at least some of their sustenance. As such, even free range chickens need feed and roughage supplements to produce good eggs and meat to sustain a family.
Naturally, the more you challenge a flock to work to find food by keeping them afield without feed, the less you will have to supplement. The larger the area they have to roam and scratch, the larger their natural diet will be. However, at some point, egg production, overall flock health, and meat production will suffer without proper nutrition. Not to mention, most free range chicken producers will tell you that chickens seldom wander more than a few hundred yards from home, so a huge area is not necessary for a small flock.
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Proper Housing is Required
In terms of how much room do you need for chickens, the only true recommendation for area needed is in regards to coops or other types of housing. Laying hens need nesting boxes, and all chickens need somewhere to roost. Opinions vary on the exact amount of room required for healthy, happy hens. However, most recommend no less than 1 square foot per bird for nesting boxes a few feet above the floor. You will often hear recommendations for chicken runs around the coop in the range of four square feet per bird. These are common recommendations for any enclosed area meant for chickens.
Experienced producers will tell you, however, that the more room you can offer your birds, both outside and in the coop, the healthier they will be. More space means lower risk of diseases and unpleasant, injurious behaviors on the part of your flock. More space also means cleaner bird areas, since they can spread out their leavings across a larger space.
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Determine Flock Size
Flock size determines how much overall room you need for chickens, both for free range acreage and coop size. How big a flock you decide on should match your egg and meat production goals. Egg and meat production depends on the breed selected, feed and living conditions, as well as the time of year. Determining what size flock you need or want depends on family size, eating habits, and available space.
Good laying hens in healthy condition can lay eggs daily. A flock of just six good hens can produce as much as two to four dozen eggs per week. If you have a rooster, you can hatch some chicks to raise for meat and eat or sell the remaining eggs. Even with such plans, most producers still find they have far more eggs than they could ever use. New producers should carefully consider what their own needs are in terms of meat and egg requirements, and what they plan to do with extra eggs or meat before deciding on flock size.
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Resources and References
Guide to backyard chickens. (2010, January). Grit Country Skills Series
Mother Earth News, Free Range Chickens http://www.motherearthnews.com/Sustainable-Farming/1984-07-01/Raising-Free-Range-Chickens.aspx
USDA, Free Range Chicken http://www.ars.usda.gov/is/pr/2004/040920.htm
Image courtesy of Nick Holdstock, stock.xchng.com