For livestock keepers, the gold standard of care and compassion for our animals is letting them truly free-range. And I don’t mean that corporate doublespeak definition that we see slapped on egg cartons, either.
I’m talking about letting our animals get out and wander, explore, frolic, and exercise the way nature intended – or at least close to the way that nature intended. They are domesticated after all!
But for some, the notion is fraught with peril: my animals will run away or get lost, predators will pick them off, they’ll eat something that they shouldn’t, they’ll tear up my plants they’ll damage my stuff!
And on and on and on. For many nervous Nellies, the anxiety alone is enough to turn them off of the idea completely.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. Free-ranging is not some devil may care roll of the dice as far as your animals are concerned.
With a few simple precautions and a little bit of common sense, your animals can reap all the benefits of free-ranging, and you can make caring for them a lot easier and cheaper. I will tell you everything down below.
Why Free-Range in the First Place?
The first reason why you should free-range is because it is great for your animals. Goats and chickens alike will enjoy a range of benefits, no pun intended.
Also, not for nothing, so will you: if you do it right you’ll have less work to do, you’ll be spending less on feed and you’ll probably be less stressed overall. Check out the full list of benefits below.
1. Minimized Feed Costs
Assuming your property isn’t a barren wasteland, goats and chickens alike are going to find plenty to eat as they roam.
Goats will be eating plenty of grass and at choice nibbles from other plants, while chickens will be eating just about anything and everything, including grass, plants and berries but also bugs, worms and even tiny mammals and reptiles that they manage to catch.
The result? You spend a lot less on feed because they are getting it from the environment.
2. Better Fitness
This is an easy one. Goats and chickens that are able to roam around and frolic more are moving more, obviously. More movement equates to more exercise and more exercise means better health.
All things being equal, goats and chickens that are allowed to free-range maintain a better weight across a wider variety of diets and circumstances. This translates to less disease and better health overall.
3. Improved Happiness
Who likes being cooped up all day? Nobody, including your goats and chickens.
Even if you have them in a palatial coupe or run, and your goats have a large pen with everything they could possibly want, there is a part of them that yearns for freedom just like we do.
They want to be able to go where they want and get closer or farther from others in their herd or flock respectively.
I promise you’ll notice the difference in the overall attitude and behavior of your animals very quickly after they understand that they’re allowed to roam at will.
4. Less Infighting
Speaking of staying cooped up, have you ever been trapped in a vehicle or a small room with someone that you just don’t like, or someone that you’re currently at odds with?
You know how that tension reaches a boiling point, and sometimes leads straight to confrontation? It is precisely the same thing for goats and chickens…
Whether it is simply the establishment of a pecking order or two conflicting personalities locking horns, sometimes literally, giving your animals more room to move around will keep tensions at a simmer instead of at a boil, and that will reduce violence…
5. Control of Grass and Pests
One of the great things about letting your animals free-range is they’ll take care of your property in a couple of different ways.
If you have goats or a lot of chickens, the grass will stay cut short, I promise you that, and chickens will eliminate every manner of insect pest with methodical, relentless certainty.
Goats are also more than capable of chewing many weeds, shrubs, and nuisance plants right down to the ground, meaning you won’t have to break out the hedge trimmers every season.
6. Naturally Fertilized Soil
As you already know, goats poop, and chickens poop a lot. Both poop whenever they need to go for the most part and as they are free-ranging they’re going to poop all over the place.
This can be gross, and it might require a certain amount of control depending on the layout of your property and your purposes.
However, the good news that this animal feces will break down and return nutrients to the soil, improving plant growth in the future. It isn’t considered a natural fertilizer for no reason!
Disadvantages of Free-Ranging
Free-ranging is great, and I highly recommend it for goats and chickens alike, but it isn’t without its drawbacks that you’ll need to be aware of.
For some people, these are going to be nothing more than trading out one chore for another, but for others they might be deal-breakers.
Consider the following factors carefully before you decide to take the plunge.
1. Greater Risk of Predation
Something you’ll need to get used to straight away is that animals allowed to free-range, even on a relatively small property, are at greater risk of predator attacks.
If they are farther from you and farther from human habitation, to say nothing of just being out in the open, this gives predators more options for approaching and striking.
This means that the predator will succeed more often, and though it might not necessarily claim their life, it will certainly lead to more injuries and potentially euthanasia.
This can be mitigated in kind through various means and we’ll talk about that in just a little bit.
2. Toxic Plants
The biggest advantage of keeping your goats and chickens contained is that they pretty much only get to eat what you bring them.
This means that, outside of a fluke occurrence, they aren’t eating anything that is toxic or downright poisonous for them. This won’t necessarily be the case when they’re allowed to free-range.
Chickens tend to be very good about avoiding things that can hurt them, although you still must take care to screen your property. Goats, on the other hand, are notorious for eating some things that will outright kill them.
If you’re going to allow your goats and chickens to free-range you must make it a point to familiarize yourself with the dangerous plants for each species and thoroughly comb your property to eliminate any growths.
3. Wandering Off (Especially Goats!)
Free ranging means freedom, and having freedom means the ability to choose. Your goats and chickens may choose to run off into the wild blue yonder.
Shockingly, this is rarely a big deal for chickens that are already acclimated to living in a coop.
Chickens that live in a coop will naturally want to return to it for safety as the sun starts to get low in the sky, and the vast majority won’t go too far away under any circumstances.
But goats, goats are different. Goats, if not contained at the very perimeter of your property, can and will wander off, and this is especially likely for intact males or any goats that are following other members of the herd.
4. Damage to Property and Protected Plants
This should be obvious to seasoned homesteaders. Goats and chickens both can and will absolutely demolish various plants that you don’t want them to touch.
Everything in your garden will be free game, as will any of your decorative landscape plants. If you aren’t willing to sacrifice them, you must take steps to protect them…
5. Cannot Depend on Forage and Browse for Complete Nutrition
For many folks, the idea of free-ranging is synonymous with ideal nutrition for goats and chickens. It’s closest to what they would eat in the wild, after all.
Well, that’s the idea, but it doesn’t always work out that way. A foraged diet is rarely complete for either species, and you should still stay on top of their overall condition and be prepared to supplement what they get on their travels with their usual hey or feed and any vitamin or mineral supplements they need.
How to Free-Range Your Goats and Chickens Right
Making the switch to free-ranging your goats and chickens is not as hard as most people think.
Simply consider the following and implement what is appropriate for your property and situation, and soon you’ll be able to enjoy your animals running around all over the place.
1. Establish a Free-Range Routine
Letting animals out is easy, getting them to come back in is hard. But you’ll need to if you want to make caring for them straightforward and also ensure their safety before sundown.
Chickens will spoil you in this regard, because most chicken breeds will naturally head for home, home being the coop, when the sun starts to go down.
Goats can be far more challenging. You can make it easy to call both species by putting their favorite food or treats in a container that makes a distinctive sound when shaken.
When you want them to come in, start sounding the “dinner bell” and watch them come running.
2. Fence Your Property Boundaries (Especially for Goats)
Free-ranging shouldn’t be totally, completely free, especially in the case of goats. They still need boundaries to prevent them from wandering off, unless you have a truly huge property some kind of fencing is great for keeping your chickens from hopping on to someone else’s property.
If you have a suitable fence at the edge of your property, you’re all set. But if you don’t consider using temporary electric fencing for goats to give them a strong psychological incentive to stay inside the bounds.
3. Supplement Diet as Needed
As mentioned above, your animals are going to enjoy a great diet when allowed to free-range, but it probably won’t be a truly complete one.
You should still have feed on hand that is suited for their needs and also be prepared to give them any vitamin and mineral supplements to further boost their nutrition.
Just because you’re allowing them to free-range it does not mean you don’t have to feed them anymore! Your feed costs will go down, potentially way down, but they will never be zero.
4. Protect What Needs Protecting
Anything that is vulnerable or troublesome must be protected from your animals or else they can damage or destroy it.
Prized plants and produce will be eaten, mulch will be scattered, trash broken into, and vehicles dented and scratched to hell and gone.
Before you ever let your animals out, take the time to thoroughly assess what is vulnerable on your property, and more importantly, what you cannot stand to see damaged. Then act accordingly.
5. Keep Untrained Pets Inside
You might think all of your animals are going to be one big happy family when you allow them to free-range.
Never let your household pets out and around your goats or chickens unless they’re properly trained or thoroughly habituated to living peacefully alongside them already.
Trust me: cats and dogs alike will have their prey drives strongly stimulated by chickens and potentially also baby goats.
On the other hand, adult goats and especially bucks of larger breeds can easily hurt or kill a dog or cat.
6. Show Chickens Where to Lay
One major shortcoming of free-ranging chickens, if you are keeping them for their eggs, is that they might get confused about where to lay.
A laying hen is going to look for the most suitable spot to her and then start laying there. Ideally, you want her laying in the coop in her nesting box as you intend.
To help with this snag, make it a point to keep hens that are ready to lay in the coop until they have laid in the box at least once or twice, and you can make a great case for putting a decoy egg or even a golf ball in there to help stimulate her to the right spot.
7. Keep Pregnant Goats Penned
This is divisive, but I am all for keeping expecting goats pinned up so they can deliver and control conditions and in safety.
Things can go wrong quickly with newborn goats, and you want to give them the best possible chance to thrive.
8. Take Reasonable Precautions against Predators
Be sure to take precautions against predators, at least within reason. Goats are generally only worried about larger predators like coyotes, wolves, bears and potentially mountain lions depending on where you live (although packs of feral domestic dogs can also be a major hazard).
If you have a horse, llama or alpaca in with them they can serve as a deterrent, potentially, as can a specially trained livestock guardian dog.
For chickens, well, there are a lot more things that can and will eat chickens including snakes, raccoons, possums, badgers and many birds of prey.
Birds of prey can be warded off using owl decoys or even including a couple of black chickens in your flock.
Black chickens work because the birds of prey associate them with crows which are notorious for ganging up on and running off birds of prey.
Speaking of, if you can solicit some crows to hang around your property, this will dramatically cut down on bird of prey attacks.
Free Ranging is Easy and Beneficial when Done Right
And that’s it. For all the worry and concern that it causes, free-ranging is nine times out of ten a great thing for you and for your animals, and not nearly as hard as many people make it out to be.
But it is different from your usual routine, and there are things you’ll have to do to facilitate it. Use the information I’ve provided you in this guide, and you and your herd and flock will have a great time.
Tom has lived and worked on farms and homesteads from the Carolinas to Kentucky and beyond. He is passionate about helping people prepare for tough times by embracing lifestyles of self-sufficiency.