In free-range systems, birds’ use of the outdoor area is dependent on the weather, condition of the range area, the size of the openings to the outdoors, flock size, the presence of vertical structures, shade structures and vegetation on the range, fearfulness, age of the birds, time of day, and temperature and climate (including wind speed, rainfall and total number of hours of sunlight).
There should be sufficient pop-holes (openings from the shed) to the outdoor area which allow unimpeded access to the outdoors. Because hens are naturally fearful of aerial predators such as eagles or hawks, the outdoor area should have sufficient cover (overhead and/or vertical structures) at a reasonable distance from the shed to encourage hens out of the shed and allow them to dart to cover should that be necessary.
Providing shade and shelter will also encourage hens to access the range during less ideal weather. Natural and artificial shade structures can encourage use of the range. Nagle and Glatz (2012) found that hay bales, forages, and shelter belts encouraged a large number of birds onto the range compared to an outdoor area with no enrichment. The management of shade structures and forages on the range over time maintained the attractiveness of outdoor areas.
Ensuring protection from predators such as dogs and foxes is also important – for example, electric fencing or guardian animals.
The quality of the outdoor area also affects access – providing areas of palatable vegetation, trees, shrubs, fallen tree trunks, etc. and ensuring the area is not overly muddy or full of puddles will increase interest and encourage use of the outdoor area.
Regularly rotating the outdoor area will help maintain its attractiveness as well as reduce parasite burden.
If the outdoor area is attractive and provides birds with sufficient protection, then hens will access it. Research suggests that 80% of the birds will use the range at some point in the day with at least half of those birds using it for 80% of the time available to them.
- Nagle TAD, Glatz PC (2012) Free range hens use the range more when the outdoor environment is enriched. Asian-Australasian Journal of Animal Science 25:584–591.