Chickens are one of the most commonly kept livestock in the tropics. They are very productive for meat and eggs. Being small, they do not present the challenges of larger livestock like cows and pigs. All-in-all, their widespread presence in rural Asia indicate that chickens are the preferred choice for smallholdings.
Keeping chickens in battery cages has been a controversial topic of modern industrial farming. Other than the cruelty of immobilizing an animal in a cage barely its size, the widespread use of antibiotics, growth hormones, and other chemicals gives rise to many health concerns. The opposite of battery cage is to let the chickens range freely over a natural vegetated environment.
While the idea of free range sounds fantastic in theory, there are reasons that some of the farms we have visited do not let their chickens range freely. The chickens there do range but are limited to an enclosed area. Some of the reasons for not letting the chickens range freely include:
- Attack by predators like snakes, wild boars, eagles, etc.
- Hygiene considerations since the chickens will not use a designated toilet
- Messing up the garden by scratching up seedlings and eating vegetables
- Keeping the eggs to a limited area for ease of searching
In Maejo Baandin in Thailand, the egg chickens are fenced up in an outdoor area with a coop. They have scratched most of the soil bare but there are still trees that provide shade for them. Since there is not enough ground vegetation for them to feed on, the chickens are fed daily from food scraps from the kitchen.
We observed a similar method but in an indoor area at Permaculture Perak in Malaysia. Over there, they keep chickens with other small livestock like ducks, guinea fowls, turkeys, and rabbits in a barn. The ground is concreted so there is no vegetation growing. Like Maejo Baandin, the chickens are fed daily with food scraps and wheat. Permaculture Perak is in the mountains and previously when they kept the chickens outdoor there were attacks from eagles.
Kampung Chickens – Strong and Hardy
We have seen purely free ranging chickens at Suria Helang Lui – a farm in Malaysia close to Kuala Lumpur. They are of a variety colloquially known as kampung chicken. Kampung means village in Malay and kampung chickens are the chickens that range freely around the village. They can be said to be semi-wild compared to the commercial breed. Kampung chickens retain more of the genetic traits of their wild ancestor the red junglefowl. You can see they are more lean and have longer legs. Native to the jungles of tropical Asia, they are extremely adapted to these conditions.
At this farm, we can see that they range all over, even occasionally into the house. We were told that diseases are very rare. Other than being genetically adapted to the heat and humidity, diseases are much less likely to spread when the flock is spread over a big area. The kampung chickens graze freely and pick their spots according to what they feel. On a hot day, you might see them hiding in the cool shade of a dense tree. During a heavy rainstorm they might seek shelter. Roaming around, they pick and eat what their bodies need. The exercise they gain from walking around definitely helps too.
Chickens can wreck havoc on a tidy vegetable garden with their passion for scratching. They pick on tasty seedlings if they have not already trampled on them. On the other hand, they also help to scratch or eat weeds. Their droppings are also great for fertilizing the vegetables. What can you do then?
We saw an innovative solution to this at the farm. They erected simple barriers around the vegetables by staking bamboo into the soil. The chickens stay away from the seedlings but still graze around the vegetable garden.
A High-Rise Coop
These kampung chickens don’t even need a coop! The good folks at the farm actually built a coop for them. However, when night falls, the chickens choose instead to roost on trees. This makes perfect sense because this has always been the way their ancestors roosted in the forest. It keeps them safe from the bigger nocturnal predators that hunt at ground level like pythons and wild boars. Up in the trees, the ventilation is better and humidity from the soil does not rise up. Moist conditions can sometimes cause diseases.
One of the biggest problems is that the kampung chickens lay their eggs all over the farm. Good luck finding the eggs if the ground vegetation is thick. On the other hand, if an egg happens to be in an open area, it will be a race to get it before the dogs eat it. However if you choose to see things in another way, the hidden eggs are not really wasted because they will soon turn into chicks. The folks at Suria Helang Lui have already lost count of the chickens in the farm. The number ranges from 60 to 100 based on estimates when the chickens gather for feeding every evening.
Another problem is catching the chickens when you need to slaughter them. These guys are fast and they also fly. You have to be swift and decisive to grab hold to one. Amusingly, one of the dogs at the farm is trained for this mission. All you do is throw a pebble at the chicken of choice and this smart dog will retrieve it for you!
Yes, there are advantages to having the kampung chickens roam freely. However there are also inconveniences to this method especially if you are a commercial breeder. You might need the chickens to yield many eggs at one location to collect them easily. Your customers might not enjoy the tough and lean meat of these athletic chickens. These chickens can be seen as “wasting” your feed by expending the energy running and flying around. Otherwise you might need to keep many chickens in a small space for your farm to be profitable.
Personally I like the idea because the chickens live to their natural behavior. You don’t even need to feed them for them to survive. I think that if I have my farm one day, I will be giving this a try!
6 thoughts on “Free Range Chicken – To Be Or Not To Be?”
loved the read!
Thanks Siddharth! You probably see lots of chicken rearing techniques in rural India as well. Share some tips with us if you know of any. =)
Plus the chicken tractor, I see chickens contained within an electric fence and moved around in Australia, but they have the luxury of space. My neighbours also let their chickens roam free, one of them named their chook “Lucky”, after a bird of prey grabbed it and dropped it from a height. I wouldn’t let my future chickens roam too far out because of feral cats in Australia. I think I would be quite kiasu and have some netting to protect them from air attacks – again depending on the kind of birds in the area… of course I’ll keep them in a locked up coop at night. In Singapore, I’ve lost at least one chicken to a predator (once, a cat killed my rooster and left the entire carcass behind). A few went missing and I’m not sure where they went.
Chicken tractors sound good but I haven’t seen them used in part of the world. Many people have small tractors around a few sqm but if you read Bill Mollison’s book he actually says it’s 40 chickens to ~1,000sqm. To set up an electric fence like that can be expensive and logistically challenging in the dense tropical undergrowth.
I think for chickens to roam free, they have to be the right breed. The semi-wild kampung chickens’ ancestors have survived eagles and tigers in a forest environment. The roosters can be aggressive and some attack adult humans. The more domesticated ones we breed for yield and tameness do not have the physical and mental traits of their wild counterparts to survive. I guess we can’t have the best of everything…
I’m considering to venture into this free-range organic chicken and egg business alongside with organic vegs but also realized that egg collection is one of the major challenges not to mention the destruction of the birds to the vegs. To manage 1000 birds, in free-range method is not a breeze. Is there any more productive method if you’re to come out with 1000 free range egg chickens?
Yes the chickens will destroy the vegetables, you can consider rotating the plots like a chicken tractor. If not chickens ranging under fruit trees can be beneficial too. For 1000 chickens, you’ll probably have to divide them into groups for easier management.