Adventures in Day Ranging

Our goal with all the poultry is to day range, whereby we let the birds do their bird thing, wandering around their section of the property during the safer daylight hours, free to forage for grass, eat grubs and bugs and other assorted natural goodies, poop all over the place and scratch it back into the ground as fertilizer, and generally act like birds instead of zoo captives.

The upsides are a plenty:
1. We think it’s more humane.  The chickens get to act like chickens, pecking and scratching.  The guineas have enough space to really fly around.  The ducks and geese can get their fill of pond-side greenery.

2. The birds get more variety in their diet beyond their grain-based feed, so their eggs are tastier for us (and have that tell-tale dark almost burnt orange yolk).  There’s also supposed to be some science saying that pasture-raised birds lay eggs higher in brain-building omega-3 fatty acids, but I’m too lazy to provide you with a link.

3. All this foraging means the birds eat less feed, which saves us money.  Also on the budget front, their homes don’t get dirty as quickly when they spend their days outside, so we don’t have to clean out their houses as often or pay to replace their hay as often.  Also, pasture-raised birds are said to get sick less often (as they aren’t just pecking around on ground they’ve all been pooping over), so hopefully we won’t lose any birds to disease.

4. My personal favorite, this place just feels more like a farm when there are chickens in the pasture, and ducks and geese wandering the front yard.

There are also downsides, the biggest one being day ranged birds are more vulnerable to predators (hence Scout).  The other biggie we’ve found this past week is that it’s kind of a pain in the ass to round up birds each evening, something that has not been aided by the Fall Back of daylight savings, meaning I don’t get home until past dusk so poor Will is left chasing guineas around their enclosure in the dark.

Here’s how it’s going so far:

Chickens: You guys rock.  Once the frost melts, Will opens up the hoop house and the ladies hop outside and start exploring.  We have a “yard” fenced for them a la electrified poultry netting since they are our most vulnerable birds (still relatively small and not so good in the flying department).  Some of the hens can still fit through the holes of the netting and slip outside into the wide wide world, but so far they keep coming back.  And, as long as Will waits until the sun starts to set before heading back to the hoop house, everyone puts themselves away, hanging out on the roost when the doors get closed for the night.  Easy!

Ducks and Geese: The ducks get locked up in their house at night, which doesn’t have food or water in it, so they are the very first chore every morning.  Once Will opens the doors and refills their water and food, he leaves the gate to their yard open and the geese and ducks eventually end up wandering our front lawn.  The geese look like they are duck shepherds, waddling tall as the quacks scurry about.  Sometimes the ducks and geese will put themselves back in their yard, but often it involves some chasing.  It still beats the days when we’d have to catch the ducks and toss them in their house (they put themselves into their house at night, finally!), but it’s not as easy as the chickens, or when we just kept everyone in the yard.

Guineas: These birds are a whole different ballgame.  As you may recall, we had a jail break when we first moved the guineas to their current enclosure in the lower yard, so we’ve been pretty gun-shy about letting these birds loose.  While flipping through a copy of Gardening with Guineas trying to determine how big a house we need to build them, Will read something about starting to day range your birds around six weeks.  Yeah, ours are eleven weeks old.  Opps.  So the next morning during chores, we head down to their enclosure and leave the door open, waiting for a mass exodus.  Within minutes, all 15 birds are perched on the bottom wooden strip of the doorway, careening their heads around, but not a single one would venture across the threshold.  Not one bird left that first day.

On the second day, the door was again left open, and by around 4 PM all the birds were outside the enclosure.  They explored for about a half hour and were back home.  Sweet!  The third day, not so much.  They left earlier in the morning and spent most of the day outside, popping back in during the late afternoon to snack on some feed.  They again headed outside, and outside they stayed.  At dusk, Will tried to herd them back, but that devolved into a twenty minute chase where the guineas would run along the railroad ties lining their enclosure, only to go wide just as they reached the side with the door, making it completely impossible for Will to chase them anywhere but back around again.  He gave up when all the birds took flight and proceeded to roost on top of their enclosure.  And that’s where they slept, with Will muttering all night something about what do I care if we don’t have any guineas left tomorrow.

Again, are you seeing why most farms don’t raise these birds?

Since that night we’ve had two nights where they made it back inside and one where they again opted for the penthouse.  So yes, day ranging in this case is decidedly more difficult for us.  Of course, the whole reason we have guineas is so they can eat bugs, so they won’t do us much good if we keep them locked up.  Assuming we have any left come spring.

Overall, I’d call day ranging a tentative success.

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