Our girls roam free. They enjoy exploring the yard, eating what the birds and the squirrels drop from our feeders, sunning in the lower part of our barn, eating out the compost pile, and walking the trails of our yard. Our last group enjoyed crossing the road to our neighbors yard, and they even strolled up the road sometimes.
Free range chickens eat well - so many greens, bugs, and other critters - and produce the best eggs I've ever seen in my life. The shells are thick and hard to break. The yolks are brilliant gold, and stain the bowl when we mix up an omelet or scrambled eggs. Study results published in Mother Earth News showed that free range eggs (literally roaming free out under the sun versus roaming freely in an over-packed hen house) have higher nutritional value - lower in bad cholesterol, high in all that good stuff - than conventional eggs from chickens raised in a high-density setting on a diet of grain that includes antibiotics and pesticides.
Free range chickens are at risk. Predators (coyotes, hawks, raccoons, foxes, oppossums, skunks), cars, dogs, etc. tend to also free range, especially in the country. Having a small free range flock is delightful for the eggs and the joy of seeing a chicken ambling about your yard, but they are in more danger than they would be in a contained run.
What We Do
Other than hoping for the best for them each and every day, we take a few precautions. We lock them up each night around dusk and let them out each morning. This is labor intensive and sometimes tedious. If we're out of town for an extended period we need to schedule family, friends and neighbors to help out. If it's just one evening, we'll rustle them into the coop using bird seed.
We put away their feeder each night. Their food is attractive not only to them, but to predators. One night I found an opossum inside the feeder when I went to pick it up.
Predators are often attracted by the chicken smell. By closing the girls up at night, we figure we lower the smell a bit for the evening. We also figure that by having them free range the smell is dispersed. (We realize we may be fooling ourselves.)
We gather eggs every day. Predators also like eggs. By gathering them each day it means the eggs won't be left to rot and smell. We do leave a wooden egg in the nesting box so the girls don't feel completely bereft. No one has been broody, and so far we don't think they're laying elsewhere. We did have that problem a year ago with the first flock, but the wooden eggs seem to help. I also don't let them see me take the eggs out of the nesting box. This probably is more me than them, but I don't want to risk it.