After months of having our chickens penned up in their relatively small coop and fenced-in yard, we finally are able to safely allow our chickens to roam- no small task, since we live in a very rural area where we often see coyotes, foxes, raccoons, stray dogs, chicken hawks, and other potential chicken predators right in our own backyard. We already lost 2 chickens to what we presume to be a raccoon earlier in the summer, and do not want to dwindle our flock any further!
The idea to go more free-range all started after doing some research recently regarding free-range vs. conventional eggs, when I realized a number of important things.
First, we needed to find a source for organic chicken scratch. There are numerous harmful chemicals that can end up in chicken scratch, arsenic among them. Yuck!
After calling local organic farms to see what they use, we finally found 2 dealers in the region, one that sells Fertrell Organic Poultry Feed and one that sells Graham Organics (a local brand, and one that we ultimately settled on). There were not many options in the Southwest Michigan area, but we were very pleased to find the Farmer's Elevator Co-op in Hudsonville, about 50 miles from our farm. We headed out there and bought enough chicken layer mash for the whole winter (hopefully)- 4 50-pound bags at $22 each.
I also have become concerned about the lack of greens in our chickens' diet. I mean, I do pick weeds and greens for them every day, but estimates I found suggested that chickens should have close to 40% of their calories from grass/greens! And since grass is a low-calorie food, that's a lot of grass. But I guess I didn't realize why this is so important....
You know how decades ago, everyone thought eggs were healthy, and then sometime around when I was a little girl, things changed, and we were told to limit how many eggs we eat because they can cause high cholesterol? I think a lot of that had to do with the way that chickens were raised, and was an indication that we had switched from small farm, free-range eggs to mass-produced factory farmed eggs, with dire health consequences.
See, it turns out that we get two essential fatty acids from eggs, Omega-3 and Omega-6. The ratio of these 2 EFAs depends on the diet of the chicken. A high-Omega-3 egg would actually help lower cholesterol, whereas a high-Omega-6 egg would raise your cholesterol. The green part of plants is high in Omega-3 fatty acids, and the grain/seed is high in Omega-6. So when we overfeed our chickens grains/corn/seed, and under-feed greens, we end up with eggs that are high in Omega-6, and therefore contribute to high cholesterol. When chickens are allowed to free-range, they produce eggs that are high in Omega-3 fatty acids, and these eggs are much, much healthier, actually having positive health benefits, especially for our heart and arteries! I think that is totally fascinating!
And that also explains why fish/seafood is so heart-healthy. The ocean only produces plants with green parts, and no grains, and so all ocean life that feeds on seaweed, or on a creature that fed on seaweed, ends up being high in Omega-3 fatty acid, and therefore is a heart-healthy thing to eat.
So we decided that we had to let our chickens free range, if we wanted healthy eggs. We started letting them out for a couple hours a day, when we knew our neighbors' dogs were inside and could not chase the chickens (we think they might be responsible for a dead wild turkey- much bigger than a chicken- that turned up on our driveway). But I cannot tell you how hard a time I sometimes had getting those darn chickens back in the coop when it was time. The first day I chased them for 2 hours (probably as much due to my lack of skill as to their stubbornness). That simply was not going to work.
So we came up with a grand plan! One of our larger garden plots is next to the chicken coop. Since the growing season is over, we decided to let them roam in there, cleaning up the weeds, bugs, and scratching/tilling the soil, all while adding beneficial chicken poop. It's a perfect solution!
So Alex built an enclosure that connects the coop to the garden, cut open the garden fence, and now the chickens have a huge and wonderful pasture to graze upon to their hearts content. Let me tell you, they sure are some happy chickens now! And the best part- they aren't eating half as much layer mash, which will mean big savings for us. Happy chickens, happy wallets. Who could ask for more?