I had another post planned, but a reader asked about free range chickens, eggs, and predators. By the time I’d typed half of my answer in a comment reply box, I decided the topic was worthy of its own posts, so I’ll publish them first.
|I have 17 barred rock pullets with coop and run. Would love to free range to save feed but concerned with predators and not finding all the eggs. I live near large area of open woods in Central FL and regularly see racoon, fox, bear, and hawks. How do you deal with those two issues or are you not as rural? Thanks.|
As Jakenshake mentions, with free-ranging chickens your main concerns are finding the eggs and keeping the chickens safe from predators.
First, let me deal with finding the eggs. If your pullets are already laying in their nest boxes, that’s great. You’re one step ahead. As long as they like the boxes and you have plenty of them, the chances are good that they will keep using them. If they do, problem solved.
If they don’t, I have found that MOST of the time, wayward hens will choose a favorite spot and lay there. When I lived in Florida, the pampas grass clusters were great favorites. The hens had little passages into the clumps, and openings that they’d trampled down into little nesting rooms. It was easy enough to see the favored location — they held those eggs inside in the morning until I released them and all made a mad dash for the pampas, then squabbled over who got to lay first, with the others lining up to wait their turn. I had 50 or so hens at the time, so I just dealt with it by checking their favorite laying spots every day to gather eggs.
If I hadn’t wanted to deal with The Great Easter Egg Hunt as we used to affectionately call it, I could have kept the hens penned in the run in the morning. Most eggs are laid early in the day, and that would have solved most of the problem. Although hens are on a cycle and WILL lay a bit later on some days, forcing them to lay in their nests part of the time will go a long way towards discouraging them from getting into the bad habit of laying eggs elsewhere.
On the other hand, you may sometimes have a hen who really REALLY wants to brood chicks. She may do such a great job of hiding eggs from you that one day she’ll just disappear, and you’ll think something has eaten her, only to have her show up in three weeks or so with a bunch of fluffballs at her side (assuming you have a rooster). I had a barred rock hide in a grassy field that was frequented by skunks and coyotes, then show up with 18 chicks … how she managed to stay hidden that entire time I’ll never know, but she did. I moved her and her chicks into the coop, locked them up in a broody box for about 3 days, and since then she’s caught on to raising chicks in the coop. I sold several of her pullets and netted about $30 or so, had some more young roosters for the pot, and added a few more pullets to my flock (who are willing to raise babies themselves). So all in all, it worked out well for me.
What it boils down to is making sure your girls are trained to lay in the coop. Keeping them locked in until early afternoon will help them learn faster. Making sure you have enough boxes that the hens like is important too. If they have to wait too long to use a nest or if they really dislike the nests they are more likely to look for alternatives.
Speaking of what chickens like in a nest, it does vary a bit. Some have odd little preferences. If you start with standard boxes or something that has worked for lots of other people, you are less likely to have problems.
For example, many hens don’t like to nest too close to the floor. Most of mine are willing to lay eggs in the bottom row, and a few even prefer it, but the upper row of boxes are the first choice for most of my hens. Some hens don’t like to lay in boxes that are too large or too small. At one time or another, I’ve used standard nest boxes, broody boxes (which are open-fronted wooden boxes about 2-1/2 foot square that accommodate a broody and chicks), various wooden dresser drawers, large rabbit nest boxes, 5 gallon buckets, medium sized garbage cans, milk crates, and probably a few other things for nests. Most of my chickens, both standard sized and bantam, will accept any of those. I do have a couple of oddballs who prefer really tight spaces. They squeeze behind the broody boxes to lay their eggs. (The broody boxes used to be against the wall, but I had to move them out about 4 or 5 inches to be able to check carefully for snakes back there, and drag them out when I find them. It’s enough space for the girls to squeeze into.) For the most part though, most hens seem fairly accepting of whatever you give them.
(Just another tip, if they haven’t started laying yet, placing dummy eggs in the nest really DOES help most of them get the idea. They tend to like to lay in a place where there are already some eggs.)
I hope that helps. One thing I sometimes see suggested that I would NOT recommend is to clear your property of bushes or other places that might be tempting spots for hens to try to hide their eggs. Since that kind of cover can help protect them from predators (more on that subject next), I would NOT remove it.
And I’ll get back to your question about predators in the next post … it’s already half written, so I’ll finish it up and probably publish it sometime tomorrow. It’s almost 2 am here now, so I need to get some sleep.