There’s a lot of talk about free range chicken and what that means exactly. To most, it means the birds can come and go as they please and usually this assumption comes with the mental image of green pastures and happy chickens. The reality is, this probably isn’t the case.
The USDA says this:
“FREE RANGE or FREE ROAMING: Producers must demonstrate to the Agency that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside.”
Just one sentence and a whole lot of interpretation!
Different Types Of Free Range
Going on the whole ‘has been allowed access to the outside’, there are basically five different variations of the brief free-range definition:
1) A door they could wander out – This is more common with larger scale chicken farming. Imagine a structure with a few hundred birds in it. Basically, all the farmer has to do is put a door on the side of the structure and open it – for how long, I’m not sure – and every single bird in that structure is now considered free range as they had ‘access to the outside’.
It’s a stretch, but it does actually fit the definition.
Granted, I would not want to be the one who had to coral a few hundred chickens back inside, every single day, but for me, personally, this does not fit my idea of free range.
2) Chicken Tractors – When you say the word tractor, people tend to think of the large and powerful machine that helps the farmer plant and harvest. This is not a chicken tractor. To be honest, I’ve never understood how the term tractor comes into play.
The best way to visualize a chicken tractor is to imagine a structure that looks like a long greenhouse. Now shrink it down a bit and replace the plastic sides and top with, you guessed it, chicken wire. In short, a chicken tractor is a mobile enclosure that gives them enormous exposure to the outdoors.
Chicken tractors vary in size, according to the number of birds the farmer wants to enclose. Smaller tractors will hold as few as 3 birds where the more production minded farmer might enclose as many as 100.
3) Pens – A chicken pen is a fixed area that has been enclosed by fencing and sometimes overhead netting. This type of ‘access to the outside’ is more common with the backyard chicken where space to wander is limited.
4) Mobile Coop – The mobile coop is unique in that the chicken coop, or their overnight lodging, is on wheels and can be hauled to location. Often, this method is accompanied with electric netting, as the netting is easy to set up and ‘shocking’ to any predators that might be in the area.
5) True Freedom – This is probably what most people think when they hear the term free range. The birds have the space and the freedom to wander wherever they want. The farmer simply lets the birds out of their coop in the morning and closes the door for them at night. Where the chickens spend their entire day is completely up to them.
Risks Of Free Range
1) A door they could wander out – Predators are generally a very small problem with this type of free range variation as the birds will probably spend very little time outside. Unfortunately, this protection comes with its own issues.
Health of the birds is much more of an issue as the higher volume of chickens means a greater chance of disease or injury. Ventilation and waste management are crucial and must be monitored.
2) Chicken Tractors – While ventilation and waste management are not an issue with this method (provided the tractor is moved everyday), predators can be a problem. While it is very improbable that a predator could chew through the chicken wire, any gaps in the protective covering could be exploited.
Also, the longer the chicken tractor, the less likely it is to sit flat on the ground. This means that with a little bit of digging, a fox could find its way inside where the birds are unable to escape.
Another issue with chicken tractors is the weather itself. In early spring, a cold rain can leave the birds chilled. In late summer, a lack of shade can cause the birds to overheat. A good chicken tractor will provide for both of these potential problems.
3) Pens – Pens generally provide the most protection against predators – though ask anyone who employs this variant and they’ll tell you that it is a continual battle to ensure the chickens safety. Predators come in many shapes and forms allowing them to employ a wide range of skills.
This continual assault on the chicken’s home can cost a farmer a lot. Chicken wire does not work against the smaller predators such as the weasel. So what might have offered protection, even for a few years, is rendered worthless in a single night.
And unless the pen is completely covered with bird netting, then you can pretty much count on a visit from your neighborhood hawk or owl. Unfortunately, in this situation, your chickens are pretty much helpless as they are ‘penned in’ and can not get away.
4) Mobile Coop – While offering a great deal of mobility to the farmer, the farmer has very little idea of what predators have been active in the new area. This can be somewhat resolved with electric netting. This ‘shocking’ deterrent is lightweight and easily deployed. However, this netting is no deterrent to any birds of prey in the area, nor is it going to stop anything that is already inside of the area you fenced in.
Snakes and rats are very good at hiding. And it is quite possible, that the chickens could find themselves fenced into a space with something that means to eat them.
5) True Freedom – While providing the most amount of freedom, this variant of free range has the highest risk. The birds will have unlimited room to escape, provided they evade the first strike – something the predator’s very life depends on executing correctly.
And some predators are worse than others. A fox, for example, won’t just kill one bird and be satisfied. This predator will kill chickens until there are no chickens left to kill. And if it misses one, you can bet it will be back the next day to finish things off.
I can tell you from personal experience, that foxes can be incredibly bold as well.
A few summers back, I went out to close the door on the coop and found I was three birds short. Having checked on them, not 90 minutes earlier, I was confused as to where they could be. Careful exploration with a flashlight discovered three kills.
Realizing I had a problem, I left the birds in the coop the following day as I installed a six foot fence. As I was finishing up, a flash of fur bolted away from me. That fox had been hiding less than 10 feet away from me as I worked!
Benefits Of Free Range
1) A door they could wander out – Chickens can be incredibly challenging to corral at times. I can only imagine if you had hundreds or even thousands of birds to manage, leaving them contained would make your job a little easier.
2) Chicken Tractors – Having the ability to control your large flock’s movements, offers some significant advantages to the farmer.
Chickens love to scratch at the ground. They will also hungrily tear at anything green thing that attracts their attention, not to mention any bugs they can find!
Put a chicken tractor in a field, being careful to move it forward a little each day, and these birds will really provide a service for you. In very little time, they will remove an enormous amount of pests (including mice) and unwanted plant growth, while leaving you some all-natural fertilizer in its place.
3) Pens – Having a designated area for your birds, limits their ‘destruction’ of greenery while giving a backyard farmer peace of mind regarding the bird’s well being. Not everyone can be on-site 24/7, so this variant of free range allows the chickens some degree of freedom while protecting them from potential risks.
Having a pen also allows the farmer to maximize the collection of chicken waste. Cleaning out the coop everyday will produce a good amount of fertilizer for the next year.
4) Mobile Coop – Much like the chicken tractor, this type of free range allows the farmer to put the natural tendencies of the flock to good use.
A good example of this would be a freshly tilled piece of ground.
Here you would bring in your mobile flock, careful to set up the electric fence around the newly tilled garden and then simply let the birds out. The best way to describe this scene would be kids on a new playground. Chickens love freshly tilled ground! It’s easy for them to scratch in and always full of good things to eat – things that were previously buried and beyond reach.
And as they remove all this undesirable material for you, they’ll convert it to a fertilizer that will benefit the growth of things you do want.
5) True Freedom – The main benefit of this variant of free range is that the chickens will not consolidate in one area. It’s true they will develop a routine, but given enough space, you will not notice their impact as much as you would if they were confined. Point of fact, you might not notice their impact at all.
This is especially good for pest control as the birds will naturally move to an area with an overabundance of insects. As soon as one bird figures out that a spot has something good to eat, then the rest of the flock is sure to join.
Discover a mouse nest somewhere you don’t want it? Point it out to your birds and they’ll handle it for you. Any unwanted residents will be quickly dispatched and the landlord is sure to abandon the home – for good!
Ticks, a particularly troublesome pest, are actually the reason we started raising chickens. I was unwilling to utilize a large amount of chemical deterrents as I was concerned with health risks to our family. Chickens were suggested as a natural alternative. With the True Freedom variant of free range, our birds are able to patrol all the way around our home – which they do all during tick season.
Also prevented is a large accumulation of waste in one area. And chickens do go a lot!
With the right number of birds for your space, a flock will consume unwanted pests, leaving nitrogen in their place…all while giving you some of the best tasting eggs you’ll ever find.
Free Range Eggs
When it comes to eggs, there are a whole slew of terms that get thrown around. Aside from taste and availability, your decision to purchase will probably be influenced by what you think you’re being told. Obviously, each group will have their bias as to why their eggs are the best. Here are some generic definitions to help you understand the terminology.
1) Free Range Eggs – These are eggs laid by hens raised in any of the five previously described methods of free range.
2) Cage Free Eggs – Simply put, there are no cages for the birds. They still might live their entire lives in a structure and quite possibly crowded, but there is some degree of freedom for the birds to move around.
3) Organic Eggs – These are eggs from hens which have not been given any vaccines or antibiotics. This would include any chicken feed with such ingredients.
4) Vegetarian Eggs – These are the eggs laid by hens which are never fed any kind of bugs or worms; strictly greens. In other words, the chickens are the vegetarians. The eggs can be consumed by anyone, not just vegetarians.
Can I Free Range My Chickens?
Obviously, unless your chicken never sees the outdoors, then by definition, it is a free range bird. However, the degree of freedom they have will depend on your specific situation.
If you live in town, then clearly you will want them in some sort of pen. If you have a little more space, say with a garden, then maybe a mobile coop with some electric netting will best serve your flock. If you’re lucky enough to have a lot of space, then maybe True Freedom works for you.
Do Chickens Need Feed If They Free Range?
While each breed of chicken is different, some foraging better than others, you will best serve your flock by ensuring there is a high quality feed available for them all year round. Doing this will go a long ways towards keeping a flock healthy, as well as, helping in egg production.
A chicken will choose a bug over plain old feed anytime. Consequently, you will definitely notice your flock eating less store bought feed in the summer. But so long as the feed is keep dry, it stores fairly well, so don’t worry too much about it going to waste.
How Do You Protect Chickens From Free Range?
Aside from fencing, as previously mentioned, there are a few things you can do to help against predators.
1) Ground based predators – Predators like the fox, generally don’t like to be out in the open, especially if cover is available. Cutting back tall grass and moving any brush piles opens up a line of sight for your chickens. And the more open area you can give your flock, the more time you are giving them to see and respond to an incoming threat.
2) Flying predators – Aside from completely enclosing your birds, hawks are guaranteed to be a problem. And don’t let yourself feel safe if you manage to thwart a few attacks from a hawk. These predators are smart and will surprise you in their cleverness.
Roosters can be an asset when facing predators (emphasize on can). The right rooster will challenge the attacker and may even give its life in defending his hens. But know that not all roosters are ready to take one for the team.
Larger companion animals are even better. Goats, geese and even donkeys will challenge potential threats. Farm dogs are also an asset, provided they are well trained. But keep in mind that chickens are a natural food for canines so careful attention to the dog’s behavior is important.
Is Free Range Healthier?
There is a lot of info/propaganda out there, on both sides of the subject, as to whether or not free range chicken is healthier. And given the broad meaning of the term ‘free range’, the confusion is understandable. Like a lot of things, a little research and a big dose of gut instinct will guide you to the choice that is right for you.
My personal take on this is twofold:
1) Happier Healthier Chickens – An animal living in a stressful situation is bound to live a less productive life over one that has little to no stress. I believe the natural environment for chickens is one where they can move around. And having the ability to act as their instincts are telling them, has got to be better than the alternative.
2) Happier Healthier Me – I am in a better sense of self when I provide for the needs of my flock. Yes, I do lose birds from time to time. And yes, I do raise chickens specifically to fill the freezer. But regardless, I treat each and every one of these birds with compassion and respect. And by doing so, I feel that I am making a happier healthier me.