Free Range vs. Chicken Run: Which is Best for Homesteading?
by Dakota Storage Buildings, on February 10, 2022
Homestead chicken owners must decide which is best for them: free range or enclosed chicken run.
Every homestead chicken owner has to make a decision to either free range their chickens or use a coop with a chicken run attached. Both options have advantages and disadvantages. We’ll take a look at both, but first, let’s define the difference between free range and chicken run.
Free Range, also known as pastured raised, means free from confinement.
While there is no legal definition for "Free Range" in the United States, the USDA recognizes "Free Range" or "Pasture Raised" as birds having "outdoor access" or "access to the outdoors," which is very loose in terms of what's expected.
For this reason, Humane Farm Animal Care (HFAC) has taken it upon itself to create standards for products that are labeled Certified Humane® and "Free Range." The HFAC's Certified Humane® "Free Range" standard requires a minimum space of 2 sq. ft. per bird, and they must be outdoors, weather permitting, for at least 6 hours per day. In addition, their Animal Care Standards for Laying Hens include standards for clean air (less than 10 ppm of ammonia), specifications regarding dust-bath areas and perches (must be provided at 6″ per bird and at least 20% must be elevated), feeder and drinker space, and more.
While these standards apply to commercial farmers who raise substantially more chickens than you will as a homesteader, they are worth noting. However, for the purpose of homestead chickens, free range simply means they're not fenced in at all, ever. Chickens are free to come and go from their coop without the restrictions of an encasement.
Advantages of Free Ranging:
- Chickens can reduce pests in your yard — from fleas and ticks to termites and mice.
- When chickens are not limited to the grass they're fed, they often ingest a wider variety of greens, including higher levels of omega-3.
- Some believe that free range chicken eggs are also higher in vitamin D, vitamin A, beta-carotene, and vitamin E.
- Free range chickens tend to exercise more as they have more space to explore.
Disadvantages of Free Ranging:
- Free range chickens are targets for predators like hawks, coyotes, foxes, and more.
- Free range chickens may not use the nesting boxes inside the coop, which means you will be going on egg hunts often.
A chicken run is a defined area in which chickens are confined. The confinement area, or chicken run, can be a fence surrounding the coop or an encasement built into the coop structure. Our Enclosed Chicken Coop is a great example of a built-in run.
Chicken runs provide a protected, though limited space, for chickens. In this space, they can get fresh air, enjoy sunshine, forage, and more.
Advantages of Enclosed Runs:
- Chickens in an enclosed chicken run are easier to keep safe from predators, including foxes, raccoons, opossums, and hawks.
- Coop runs protect your flock from threatening elements. If winds pick up, hard-hitting hail falls, or heavy downpours happen, they won’t be far from the safety of their coop.
- Chickens in an enclosed chicken run lay their eggs in the coop nesting boxes instead of all over the yard like free range chickens do. This makes for easier egg collection and fewer broken eggs.
Disadvantages of Enclosed Runs:
- You will spend more time cleaning chicken poop. The smaller the chicken run, the more often you will need to clean it.
- The more concentrated chicken poop you have, the more flies will be attracted to the run.
- Overcrowding causes stress which can lead to sickness or bad behavior. If you choose to keep your chickens in a coop with an attached run, make sure you provide enough room for each one to move around.
Finding a Happy Medium
While free range may seem like the more attractive option of the two, keep in mind that even if you have an enclosed chicken run, you can let your chickens out whenever you want. If you are nearby or outside working all day, it might be an ideal time to let them explore. But when you're ready to go inside, putting them back in the enclosed chicken run will keep them safe when you can’t keep your eye on them. If you have a smaller property, live near potential predators, or tend to worry about the safety of free range chickens, it's a good idea to use a run — just be sure that they have enough space to stretch their legs and scratch around.
As you decide what you want to do for your homestead, keep in mind that both options — free range and enclosed coop — are good. One just might be a better fit for your space, goals, or preferences.
While we have a Free Range Chicken Coop option, you'll need to build your own fencing if you want a protected run. That might be the way to go if you have a larger flock. For those with fewer chickens, our Enclosed Chicken Coop could be the perfect solution. If you choose a coop size ideal for your number of chickens, you'll have peace of mind knowing they have sufficient coop space and plenty of room for outdoor living.