free-range chickens and winter sun : LUSENET : Countryside : One Thread

My partner and I are planning a move to the country and intend to raise layer hens for home egg consumption. We like the idea of letting them roam free on our property (a 2-3 acre fenced parcel at the edge of a 100-acre lot) to forage and fertilize our garden, with a coop to house and protect them at night. (Coyotes are a serious problem in central Texas.) I'm confused about what I've read about chickens' natural cycles of egg production and our desire to free-range our chickens. Specifically, I read in one source that their light must be supplemented with electric bulbs in order to induce them to produce eggs in the winter -- that natural light, once it drops down to about 14 hours, triggers them to slow or even stop production. The only solutions given by any source I've found all assume that the owner plans to keep the chickens confined in a brood house 24-7, which we do not. If we light their coop in the mornings and evenings during the winter, will this trick them into producing eggs in the "off season"? If not, how do free-rangers get winter eggs? Also, I was wondering if free-ranging chickens will eat or otherwise destroy young garden seedlings in their foraging, and if anyone has had serious trouble or innovations regarding chickens "ranging" off their property -- do they tend to stay close to the coop and know their "territory" or are they likely to wander off (we'll have a barbed-wire fence, but I doubted that would keep them in if they really wanted to leave)?

Thanks in advance for any advice. We're getting so much out of

-- Jeremiah McNichols (, June 14, 2001


Jeremiah, Ours free range during the daytime, when dusk comes they head for the coop. This is the time we turn on our 40 watt light for a couple hours( in the winter). All of our hens laid quite well all winter, laying did drop alittle when it was really cold for a couple weeks but soon picked back up when it was warmer. As far as roaming, I'm not going to be much help, we live in a city suburb and have a fenced lot, a couple of times one hen flew over but clipping her wing stopped that. ( Also, I was wondering if free-ranging chickens will eat or otherwise destroy young garden seedlings in their foraging), I suggest not letting them have access to the garden until plants are older, because yes they will destroy young seedlings. I let a couple of ours in our garden an hour or so before dusk, that way they don't have long to scratch and seem to look for bugs and worms rather then eating my plants. They do take a nibble here and there but it worth it for the bug patrol. I rotate the hens every other day, they all get a couple shots in the garden. Hope this was of help. :o)

Blessings, Kelle

-- Kelle in MT. (, June 14, 2001.

Hi Jeremiah,

I have a flock of hens (Buff Orpingtons, Silver Lace Wyandottes, Rhode Island Red/Plymouth White Rock mix) that free range on our 6 acres. I keep some food for them in their coop but during the nice weather they forage for most of their meals, and the feed bill is next to nothing. I started with 12 , but now have 6 due to visits from the fox) We fenced the front and one side of the property to keep them out of the road and off the neighbor's property. We used split rail fence along with green wire fence nailed to it. It was expensive but looks nice. We've never had much of a problem with them going over the fence (you can clip one wing if it's a problem). We have a hedgerow on the other side of our property that seems to act as a natural barrier to keep them in, and a big field in the back that they don't wander into too much (probably too exposed to hawks there and they know it). For the garden I use a portable 2' plastice fence with plastic step-in posts for areas that I have just seeded or with young plants. I can often move the fence to other parts of the garden once the plants are growing strong.

The first year they all layed eggs right through the winter. Now they slow down during their end of the year molt or quit laying completely for a month or two as the days get shorter . I have never run out of eggs though since I usually have a few hens that keep laying maybe one or two eggs through the winter, and you can also store eggs for quite a long time in the frig. They go in their coop at night (all by themselves, of course). I only keep a light bulb on in their coop for a little warmth on very cold nights (below 10 degrees, which is not too often around here) and to keep their combs from getting frostbite. If you are not keeping the flocks for commercial production and just for your home use, I would not worry about keeping lights on. The chickens are probably happier sleeping in the dark!

By the way, I have two dogs (bird dogs actually) that were trained to leave the chickens alone and now act as their protectors by keeping predators out of the yard. The fox attacks occurred while the dogs were kenneled for awhile during vacations. I really enjoy my beautiful chickens . Good luck with your flock.

-- Barb (, June 14, 2001.

Whoops! Correction to above - "I have never run out of eggs though since I usually have a few hens that keep laying maybe one or two eggs A WEEK through the winter, and you can also store eggs for quite a long time in the frig.

-- Barb (, June 14, 2001.

We live in NE Texas and our chickens always free range. Last winter we just had two hens and a rooster, and got two eggs every day all winter. No feed supplementation, (except crushed eggshells) no lightbulb in chickenhouse (where they spend the night). Hope that helps:o)

-- Elizabeth in E TX (, June 14, 2001.

From beginning of Oct. to Mar. I left the light on in the coop after I fed them in the morning, generally about 5AM and turned the light on in the coop shortly before dark and left it on for about 3 hours. Also, in the winter time, I sprinkled red pepper for them to eat. It kept their insides warm and I never had a shortage of eggs. When it was real cold, I made them oatmeal. I did have all heavys and they were great layers. Don't say it, I know, I am nuts, at least I got funny looks from people when I tell them how I took care of my chickens in the winter. Didn't care, I had plenty of eggs to sell to the co-op all year round!

We lived, at that time in central WI and sometimes it got mighty cold.

I let them free range for awhile but when they started roosting in the apple trees my husband fenced about 1/4 acre around the coop. I wanted my apples for cider and such, they got the pomace and garden scraps. Yolks were a nice dark yellow.

Love those brown shell eggs.

-- Cordy (, June 14, 2001.

Hey Jere. Last fall I started with 16 hens. Four white leghorns, and 12 brown leghorns. A lot of people don't like leghorns, but I have no problem with them. I got them because they are suppose to be the hardiest layers around. During winter I had a light on a timer that came on at 2:00 a.m. I let them go to bed (roost) naturally. If they happen to be walking on the ground when suddenly the lights go out, then that is where they will spend the night. Therefore, I don't use the light in the evenings. I try to let them have a good 8 hrs of sleep each night. By doing this I was still getting at least 6 eggs per day even on the coldest day, and we had a lot of cold days this last winter. Worst I've seen in years. Most days I was averaging about 10 to 12 eggs per day. Since spring is here, we had a increase up until we had a coon get in one night and bit a few heads off, but I have his hide in the freezer now. (make me a coon hat). I let them open range after breakfast, and sometimes I don't see them for several hours. They go into the woods and scratch around. So far I haven't lost any to coyotes or foxes, even tho I have seen some around. I hope you have good luck with yours. I sell my eggs for 1.00 per dz. By doing this the chickens pay for their own feed and I get to eat free delicious eggs

-- Russell Hays (, June 14, 2001.

Elizabeth in E TX writes that she feeds her chickens crushed egg shells. I think this is a bad idea. Friends of mine who had a BIG organic chicken meat and egg business tried that once when they were small and the chickens ended up cracking their own eggs for the shells (ugh). That is why they always used oyster shells. Maybe just avoid the chance of your chickens doing that by not feeding egg shells.....

-- marcee king (, June 16, 2001.

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