Posted 04-01-2002 at 06:44:49
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I'll tell you what's worked for us, though I suspect we may be a little too careful.
We usually brood the chicks in a big stock tank in the basement until they're about 5-6 weeks old. They start to be able to jump out of the tank a lot sooner than that, so I put some chicken fencing on top to keep them in.
At about 5-6 weeks, depending on the weather, we move them to our coop, but keep them confined inside the coop for another few days. That lets them know where 'home' is, and makes sure they'll always come back, on their own, every night.
Then we let them out in a penned yard for another couple of weeks...the first day, they may not want to go outside and will need to be pursuaded to go outside. Our first 'set' of chicks we kept them penned longer (don't know, maybe a month more) so they were big enough to handle some potential predators (our cats, smaller hawks etc). The new chicks now just team up with the older ones and get 'defended' by them so we let them go earlier.
After that penned time, we let them go and free range where-ever they want. At nightfall, we close up the coop to keep predators out...all the chickens come home as it gets toward dusk. We let them out first thing in the morning.
hope that helps.