What does Free-range Chicken Farming Mean?

What does Free-range Chicken Farming Mean?
Free-range chicken farming allows chickens to roam freely for some part of the day rather than being caged. AnimalSake delves deeper into what free-range chicken farming means.
AnimalSake Staff
Last Updated: Mar 9, 2018
Portrait of two bantam chickens
Quick Tip
To balance the pros and cons of free-range chicken farming, you can use a movable, spacious chicken tractor or a separate, enclosed yard. These options will keep the chickens safe from predators and give them sufficient space to move around freely.

With the advent of newer and potentially more dangerous animal-related diseases, people have come to realize that animals raised in a cleaner atmosphere and hygienic conditions are safer for consumption. Raising free-range chickens is one such adopted methodology in farming husbandry. You may have heard of many such synonymous terms, like 'free-range', 'cage-free', 'organic', etc. These terms can be distinguished from one another with minutiae, though they essentially mean the same. In the paragraphs below, you will understand the concept of free-range chicken farming as well as its pros and cons.

An Overview
  • By definition, free-range chicken farming is a type of poultry farming that vouches for raising chickens in natural surroundings.
  • This means that they are not confined to aviaries (aviaries are industrial areas that house innumerable poultry) the entire day, but are let outside for some time.
  • Thus, they eat natural food, like grasshoppers and worms, gather as much sun as possible, and run around in an open space.
  • This ensures that they grow in a natural, healthy way, without external antibiotics or other commercial means. This makes a great difference to the quality of chicken meat as well as the eggs.
  • Most farms have huge grounds and tall enclosures so that the chickens do not run away and remain protected.
  • As mentioned in the introduction, a variety of terminology is used to describe this concept.
  • There is something called 'pastured farming', which means that the chickens are let out the whole day, but are returned to the enclosure at night.
  • 'Antibiotic-free' farming possibly indicates that the chickens are not given any meal that contains external antibiotics. However, it may not indicate that they are fed what is natural for them; they might survive on corn mixed with amino acids.
  • According to the guidelines set by the Humane Farm Animal Care (HFAC), free-range farming means that the chickens need to be let out for a minimum of 6 hours every day.
  • The rules also state that there must be 1,000 birds for every 2.5 acres of land, and the fields must be rotated as well.
  • The housing needs to meet the standard requirements so that the chickens can run into it to protect themselves from the weather.
  • Do not confuse 'free-range' with 'cage-free'. The latter does not mean that the chickens have access to outside areas. It just indicates that they are out of their cages but are kept within a large enclosure.

Advantages

Some of the advantages of free-range chicken farming are as follows:

Health and Nutrition
  • Free-range chickens are not fed with commercial feed, but are left to feed themselves in the natural environment.
  • They eat natural food meant for them, thus rendering them free of the extra supplements that are given to them in order to make them grow faster.
  • They have enough space to move around instead of being caged all the time. This helps them grow in a better environment and the regular outdoor exercise prevents them from being overweight and falling prey to diseases.
  • The facts that no antibiotics are being added to the food as well as that they do not live in cramped space gives rise to lesser pathogens and germ development.
  • All these health benefits add up to good-quality poultry and eggs.
Less Expense
  • A lot of expense is curtailed, as there is no commercial feed being fed to the chickens.
  • No extra supplements are being fed either, thus saving money on that too.
  • Once the high external enclosure is built, the hens can be safely let out, and the process is easily manageable.
Natural Pest Control
  • If the farm is in an area that is infested by pests, you can be sure that they will all disappear within a few weeks.
  • The hens on your farm will eat the food that is natural for them, i.e., insects, grasshoppers, grubs, etc.
  • If you make a proper arrangement for their poop, it can be used as an efficient manure.
  • The farm will be free of the pest menace, and the manure will be beneficial too.
Disadvantages

Some of the disadvantages of free-range chicken farming are as follows:

Expense
  • While expense may be spared in the form of not feeding additives and the like, costs may be incurred in case the chickens fall ill or are poisoned by any means.
  • There is a lot of expense in building the farm―high enclosures, fencing, etc.
Chicken Waste
  • If you do not make any arrangements for the hens to poop, they will do it right outside the enclosures in the open field. And, if not cleaned properly, this waste will not be used as a manure; rather, it will dirty the whole place making it unfit for movement.
  • Chickens also tend to dust and scratch, and hence, the entire field is likely to become a complicated mess.
  • Do not ever think of planting vegetables in this field; if the chickens have access to it, your strawberries/tomatoes/cabbages, etc., will be half-eaten.
Less Production
  • As the space required to raise free-range chickens is large, along with a huge enclosures and non-usage of additives, the process of raising chickens and eggs slows down and results in less production.
  • Commercially, the venture will fetch lesser money.
Predator Risk
  • If you do not fence the field properly, the poultry is at a risk of being eaten by predators, like dogs, raccoons, and other beasts.
  • You can certainly keep a watchdog for their protection, but you need to train the dog very well so that he himself does not eat up a chicken or two.
Important Facts

Certain staggering free-range chicken farming facts are enlisted below:
  • As per reliable statistics, free-range chicken eggs have the following nutritional content as compared to commercial eggs:
(1) Thrice the amount of vitamin E
(2) Less than a quarter of saturated fat content
(3) More than two-third quantity of vitamin A
(4) Twice the amount of omega-3 fatty acids
(5) Less cholesterol
  • Despite the set guidelines, certain free-range factory farms cram 16,000 hens in one enclosure.
  • As of January 2015, the California state law declares that hens in free-range farms must have 1 square foot/116 square inches space to move around.
  • In spite of increasing free-range farms, certain statistics depict that 95% of the egg production in the U.S. comes from battery-cage chickens.
  • While the guidelines are not clearly defined for free-range farming, the USDA has defined a clear standard for the label 'organic'. The rule is that 95% of the ingredients in the poultry must be organic.
  • According to the NCC (National Chicken Council), not even 1% of chickens in the country are free-range chickens.
  • According to the Access to pasture rule enacted by the USDA in 2010, the term 'organic' includes pastures.
The Debate
  • There has been an ongoing debate about the term 'free-range' and its credibility.
  • While the HFAC has declared certain guidelines for the same, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has set no such standard.
  • Meanwhile, there has been a doubt whether the chickens have really been exposed to the outside atmosphere or the term has just been misleading. Most farms, therefore, ensure that there is a tiny hole to the enclosure from where the chickens can have little access, with less space requirement.
  • Many farms have horrible living conditions within the massive enclosure, like allowing the hens to rest on urine-covered floors, cutting off their beaks, and feeding them excess supplements.
  • To promote free-range farming in the most ethical way possible, proper guidelines should be legally declared, considering the vital factors, like living conditions, health, etc.
  • One can work on the cons and strengthen the pros of this method; until then, the debate about whether free-range farming is good or bad will cease to exist.
Free-range chicken farming or, for that matter, any kind of free-range animal farming basically has a good intent. Their goal is to raise animals in natural conditions. However, the ever-increasing population and the need to provide them with food has forced the industry to look for faster food production means, which is why avenues like factory farming have come into picture. If implemented in the right manner, free-range chicken farming does have its advantages; if not, the term may just be a farce.