When you first get into the world of keeping chickens (or just learn about your food), the term “free-range” will start to pop up. Free-range chickens are often touted as healthier and more humanely raised, but what does this mean?
Should you free-range chickens? Is it cruel to prevent free-ranging? What does the USDA define a “free-range chicken” to be? If you’re unsure of these questions, we have a guide that will help you understand the connotations of this misunderstood term.
What is a free-range chicken?
A free-range chicken is a chicken that is given access to the outdoors. This is a chicken that is allowed to roam pastures rather than stay in a coop 24/7. That’s the basic explanation of it, but that’s where the simplicity ends.
Free-ranging is considered to be a humane way to raise chickens. Outdoor access helps chickens feel better and also reduces their stress. In recent years, clients have been asking for chickens raised without too much confinement with access to an outdoor area.
Thus, free-range chicken has become a popular pick on today’s market.
What does the free-range label mean on packaged chicken?
It’s important to note that “free-range” is not a heavily mandated term. In other words, there’s no set definition of what a free-range chicken is. It could be a chicken that is given a large pasture, or a chicken that spends five minutes outside in a parking lot.
That hazy definition makes it hard for people to know which chickens are actually free-range, and which are given a bare minimum of space and then forced to live in a chicken coop their entire lives.
When companies say that chickens are free-range, it’s important to see what their labeling is. Multiple organizations have restrictions on the words, so don’t be afraid to research what the organization they use claims free-range to be.
Why do people choose free-range eggs?
This tends to be a decision that is both due to the desire for human chicken-raising standards and the effects it has on eggs. Many people believe free-range eggs to be more vitamin-rich than their “indoor-only” counterparts.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that these eggs are higher in Omega-3 fatty acids and Vitamin D. However, there is still work that needs to be done to prove that this is the case.
The theory makes sense, though. Chickens that free-range will be more likely to get food the old-fashioned way: via a worm or larvae they peck out of the ground.
Are free-range chickens all organic?
Federal regulations have special definitions that involve the creation of food. Free-range just explains that your chickens have been given outdoor access, nothing more, nothing less. These terms, on the other hand, have regulations for their definitions:
- No added hormones. This means that your chicken was not injected with growth hormones. The use of hormones or steroids can be detrimental to the health of the bird.
- Non-GMO. This label means that the chickens have not been genetically modified.
- Organic. Organic chickens are not fed grains that were grown with pesticides or other potentially toxic chemicals. USDA organic labels also include stipulations on not having added hormones or too many antibiotics, and require outdoor access.
- Certified Humane Free-Range and Pasture-Raised. These are chickens raised in a way that is considered to be humane. Farmers have to pass audits in order for their farms to keep this label.
- Cage-free. This means that the chickens are raised without the use of inhumane cages.
Why are free-range chickens considered to be more humane?
Chickens, like all other animals, do best with outdoor access. Most commonly, this means that they will get a chicken run to forage for bugs, take dirt baths, and also just enjoy life cage-free. Even with broiler chickens, outdoor access is a smart move.
Studies showed that chickens that were fed a grain diet with extra vitamins and minerals while living indoors did not fare as well as free-range chickens. They often had worse gut bacteria, more parasites, and higher rates of plucking.
It’s also worth noting that having chickens outdoors can actually help keep your yard free of other pests like ticks and fleas. So, it’s not just humane for the chickens. It’s also good for the environment and people nearby.
What does “pastured” mean in terms of chicken sales?
“Pastured” tends to mean that the chickens are left on a smaller farm that gives them full range to explore in a wider field. This gives them ample sunlight, far more space than a chicken run, and also tends to be the closest to nature you’ll get.
With that said, “pastured” isn’t a heavily regulated term. So this can mean a lot of different things depending on who is using the term. In most cases, it can mean good things for your chickens—like, really good!
How do you care for free-range chickens?
Want to raise free-range chickens? Great! The first thing you need to do is make sure they have a clean coop capable of housing them. The specifics will depend on the breed, but generally speaking, it should give them at least four square feet of space and an entryway.
In terms of free-ranging, this is what is considered to be ideal in most cases:
- Give them a chicken run. This is a fenced-in area outside the coop that protects them from predators like foxes and hawks. This will have open dirt, a little grass, and access to water.
- You may want to invest in some dogs to protect the chickens. If you are located in an area with a lot of wildlife, you may want to invest in livestock guardian dogs. These will keep your chickens safe.
- Make sure that chickens are given shade and water at all times. If you live in a colder climate, you may also want to get an outdoor heater.
- Make sure that you have enough outdoor “run space” per chicken. Each breed has its own minimum square footage requirement for free-ranging. To prevent chickens from bullying one another, it’s best to adhere to those guidelines.
- Give chickens at least two to three hours of outdoor time per day. Ideally, you will give them open access to the outdoor space ‘round the clock. However, this isn’t always possible.
- Keep an eye on the outdoor space. It should be reasonably clean and free of mites. Always take time to check around fencing so that you don’t end up with any gaps that could invite predators to your door.
- Do not give your chickens too many antibiotics and avoid growth hormones. This is the best way to make sure that your chickens fit the bill as free-range by USDA standards.
- If you want to make it official, go to the USDA site to find out how to get your birds certified. This can help you get a better price on your chickens or eggs once you hit up the farmer’s market.
What are the benefits of having free-range chickens?
- Free-range chickens aren’t just healthier, happier, and better at laying eggs. They also tend to be good to have for a multitude of reasons, including…
- Fewer ticks, fleas, and critters. Chickens and other poultry that free range will gobble those pests up. It’s organic pest control at its best.
- Better soil. They will naturally scratch at the ground, tilling your soil for you with their tiny bird claws.
- Free fertilizer. People pay tons of money to get chicken poop that they can use as fertilizer for their gardens, lawns, and potted plants. You’ll get it for free, and it’ll even be placed naturally throughout your yard.
- Higher prices. If you sell your eggs to the neighborhood, then you’ll be able to sell them for a higher price. People love ethical eggs and ethically-raised poultry. It’s a testament to the quality of work you give.
- A clear conscience. If you own chickens, then you already know that it’s easy to get emotionally attached to them. You want the best for them. You want them to have happy lives. Free-ranging them is a great way to make sure that happens.
Having free-range chickens simply means that they are given basic access to the outdoors. This is the basic definition, but when it comes to labeling chickens, it can get pretty confusing. There is not much official regulation on what free-range chickens are.
Individual groups have their own regulations and standards. It’s always smart to brush up on the definitions of labels related to poultry and eggs before you go shopping. If you are a farmer, it also may make sense to aim for a USDA free-range label.
Having free-range chickens is a good way to make higher profits, improve your local environment, be ethical in your farming, and also keep your chickens healthier. No matter how you look at it, free-ranging is a great idea for you, your birds, and the wider community.