Determining how best to handle your flock of chickens depends on a couple things, namely: how much land and how many chickens do you have?
The chicken-owners consensus is that free ranging your chickens offers the greatest number of advantages to the chickens, their owners, and the owners’ property. Chickens aren’t much different from humans when it comes to physical needs: they require fresh air, exercise, and a balanced diet to be the happiest, healthiest chickens they can be.
If you have enough space, free ranging your chickens enables the flock to roam (they typically don’t go very far) and forage for bugs, grass, and other nutrients that make for better-tasting meat and more eggs. Free ranging will also save you money on feed. What’s more, chickens have the tendency to till the earth and munch on weeds and insects that can wreak havoc on your garden.
The downside to free ranging your chickens is that they may eat produce from your garden (cover up plants you value!) and make a mess of your yard with their droppings. They’ll also be more susceptible to predators and may leave their eggs in hard-to-find places, as opposed to inside a coop.
Coop with a run
Keeping your chickens in a coop is not ideal, but sometimes it is the only option when space is limited.
Coops are more permanent structures than chicken tractors, which are portable, and thus can be larger and made of heavier, sturdier material to house a larger flock. Coops need proper ventilation and positioning to keep chickens out of the elements, excess sun, and so forth. A “run” is an enclosed space outside the coop that enables chickens to get some space, fresh air, and exercise (like a small, fenced yard you may have for a dog).
Keeping chickens cooped up can make them irritable (just like humans!), less likely to lay eggs, and prone to bad behavior. The chicken coop will also need to be cleaned regularly. You should supplement cooped-up chickens’ diets with natural items like bugs and greenery, as it will be more difficult for them to access these things inside their coop after the wild food available in the run has been depleted.
The good thing is that chickens in coops are safe from predators, chickens’ eggs are easy to find, and you can have more chickens than you can with a chicken tractor. A coop also enables to enjoy the benefits of your own chickens, even with a small piece of property, such as in an urban setting.
Chicken tractors are the happy-medium between free range and a chicken coop with a run. Chicken coops with runs, being permanent, leave dead spots on your lawn. A chicken tractor, by contrast, is basically a chicken coop on wheels. By moving the tractor from place to place, chickens can “explore” new areas of the property and eat a variety of nutrients while being protected from predators. This method of caring for chickens will also maintain the health of your grass.
The downside of chicken tractors is that they require a little more work than traditional free range or a coop and run, and they don’t house as many chickens. And it may not be practical to worry about moving a chicken tractor around if you have a very small piece of land.
How you choose to care for your chickens should depend chiefly on the size of your property and on the predator situation in your area.