Free-Range Chickens: New Method or Remake of an Old Classic?

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In the last few years, chickens have experienced a resurgence.  Now while they never went away, more people (I am talking families and individuals, not corporate farms), are raising them.  Part of the credit can go towards a movement of knowing where your food comes from.  People are raising their own for egg and meat production rather relying on a grocery store.  Another avenue of growth is coming from urban agriculture.  Communities are passing ordinances allowing for backyard chickens, which had previously been banned.

But regardless of the avenue of growth, one phrase is spouting from the mouths of these new chickens keepers.  And what are they saying?  My fellow poultry fans, they are exclaiming “Free-Range!”.

free-range labeled egg carton

free-range labeled egg carton

For newbies to poultry, they may be under the impression that free-range is a new method for raising poultry.   After all, it shows up in headlines, e-books, sustainable living articles, and even egg cartons at the grocery store.  But just how new is raising free-range chickens?

Before we delve into that area, it may help to understand the definition of free-range.  Now according to the National Chicken Council, the USDA does not have a precise definition.  However, it typically refers to chickens who have access to the outdoors for a portion of the day.  It does not mean that the chickens are outdoors everyday.

For you backyard poultry keepers, this means that if you have an outdoor chicken run (not referring to the coop) and your chickens have access to it, congratulations, you have free-range chickens.

My chickens have an entirely enclosed chicken run (including the top of the run) for protection against predators.  The run is attached to the chicken coop with small, open doors allowing access to the run.  Now while they do spend some time in the run, they do not go into the run on rainy or snowy days, opting for the shelter of the coop.  So even if they do not go out, I can still say that they are free-range birds.

But if I recall my family’s history to when my grandparents and great-grandparents raised poultry, I will indeed see chickens outside, pecking at bugs and grubs.  These girls are not confined to a pen, but rather, they have the run of the farmyard.  This is the original and ultimate free-range chicken.

During this era, free-range denoted more of a method of farming where the flock could freely roam for food.  The only type of enclosure was fencing (f any) which helped keep the chickens on the property.  And before the time of our great-grandparents when man domesticated chickens, those early flocks freely ranged around the home/camp of man.

Backyard chickens

Backyard chickens

Why is there a resurgence in free-range?  This method of chicken keeping allows for a more natural diet.  The flock roams, free from confinement to go after bugs, grubs, grass, and other plant material that catches their attention.  Not only is this more varied diet healthy, but the chickens are providing a service to their keepers.  They perform ‘shallow tilling’ of the soil as they go after bugs and they provide fertilizer to the areas where they roam.  Chickens also lay eggs with a darker orange yolk and firmer white than those feed just a diet of commercial mash.

So friends, I encourage you to open up the coop.  Let your flock roam.  Let them free-range.  Let them enjoy a more natural existence.

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8 responses »

  1. Thanks for this post. There is a lot of confusion and misinformation in the marketplace these days over the term “free range.” Folks need to be aware of the fact that eggs marketed and sold as coming from “free range” hens (and commanding high prices because of that) are often coming from factory farms where the chickens are kept in crowded confinement, often going their entire lives without seeing sunlight or a blade of grass. This is because the USDA permits the eggs to be marketed as “free range” as long as the birds have theoretical access to the outside at least part of the day. This could be nothing more than a small porch on a large egg CAFO. The Cornucopia Institute recently documented some of the abuse and here is an article on the CBS news site (with some photos) discussing it: http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-505123_162-44041791/trouble-in-the-henhouse-the-scam-of-organic-eggs/

    Eggs from truly free-ranging hens will have firm, orange yolks (as opposed to the runny pale yellow yolks of factory eggs). The beta carotene that chickens get from foraging gives the eggs this color. But I recently learned that some egg factories are now putting marigold petal powder in their feed to color their yolks in imitation of real eggs. So ultimately the true test is taste.

    • Yes, free-range is definitely one of those terms that can convey an image of an idyllic life for a chicken. And yet the USDA does not list a precise definition. Chickens are ‘allowed access’ to the outdoors. My grandparents had shared the idyllic view. Free-range at that point in time meant that the chickens had the run of the outdoors. Their water trough was placed outside and scratch grain was scattered on the ground. The chickens had to scratch and peck for the rest of their food… and they had plenty to choose from in the barnyard and pastures. I share my grandparent’s point of view on this topic.

    • We do keep our girls locked in the run and coop during the night so the foxes don’t get them. We just really want them to live as natural a life as possible (though they won’t go out when it rains or snows). I truly believe they have a good life. And yeah for your chickens. I bet they enjoy having that much space to roam around in.

  2. What stopped me from buying “factory-farmed eggs” was a picture of about a half-dozen chickens crammed into one cage. It was absolutely sickening; congrats on encouraging folks to let their chickens live like chickens.

    • I can’t imagine raising chickens in ‘factory’ conditions. Our chickens were allowed to be chickens… being outside, eating what interested them, and just having space to flap their wings and be a chicken. Now in an urban setting, I really like seeing our girls have the run of the backyard.

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