Dual purpose chickens were selected and developed to be an efficient producer of both meat and eggs but they can do much more than that. If they are allowed in the barnyard during the day they help keep the insect population down as well as eliminate small rodents that are found.
Many people however misunderstand the function of these useful birds and seem to go to two extremes. This can mean total confinement, which they are less suited for than many commercial breeds, or total freedom which means they will feed something other than YOU! Anyone seeking to keep dual purpose birds needs to remember the principles they were developed for as well as the nature of predators to take an easy meal when they see one. For an owl seeing a dozen Plymouth White Rocks in an unenclosed pen it’s akin to hanging out the “Buffet here!” sign. The birds are not only unprotected but easy to see.
A fenced area of some sort is ideal to keep the birds safe from roaming dogs, coyotes, bobcats, foxes and a wide range of other animals looking for an easy meal. Even with this you can expect to lose an occasional bird to hawks, owls and other winged predators. Once a predator finds an easy meal source and many wild predators will return until the food source is gone.
In past and present chickens left to roam a barnyard have the relative protection of the buildings and people along with the bugs, weed seeds and other treasures that feed them as well as make them valuable to homesteaders! Use caution in letting them roam in your garden as they often will harvest as they roam!
Along with letting the birds out during the day it’s important to bring them into an enclosure at night. This habit can be taught early if you raise them because you bring the grain. As they mature simply bring the same bucket you feed with and call them, giving them a treat inside the pen in the evening an hour or so before dark. Normally whatever they don’t eat then they will in the morning when they wake before being turned out.
It takes little time before they begin automatically returning to their enclosure in the evenings, providing there’s shelter and plenty of roosting space. Nesting boxes should also be available as often hens will get into a routine of laying in the morning. This assures you don’t have to wander the barnyard searching for eggs and wondering how old they are, although you may find an occasional nest. It also keeps skunks and other creatures from dining on the eggs if your chicken coop is sound as it should be.
Another option is a portable pen which the chickens go into at night. The trick here is not to move it very far or they “get lost” and don’t recognize it as home. Still another option are portable pens the chickens are in all the time, typically with a shelter area and nest boxes, solid wire sides and top and often a bottom as well. With this option the birds can scratch and hunt for bugs and get forage then are moved down to fresh ground. This can be more time intensive but can be an option for the right area. If made on skids a good sized pen with shelter on one end can be moved with a garden tractor or four wheeler, while a pen for just a handful of birds is usually smaller and can be moved by hand.
Make sure while planning mobile shelters as well as free ranging to always have water available for the birds. Use caution and have a log or board secured over livestock tanks. Some hens perch on the sides to drink, get bumped or lose their balance and for lack of being able to get out of the tank due to the sides they drown. This is a tragic loss of good birds that can be prevented with a little thought.
Dual purpose birds were developed to be able to forage and work best in that capacity. They can be much lower from a care standpoint than confinement birds but still need some care and attention to detail to insure they have a long productive life.