Free-range chickens are all the rage. If you check out the organic eggs at your local supermarket, the container will likely read “cage free” or “free-range.” There’s a growing market for free-range meat of all types. Free-range is touted as the natural way to keep chickens and it certainly is purely organic if done right. It also poses a range of risks one must be aware of before committing to the free-range movement. Free-range may bring to mind idealic images of chickens roaming free in a green field, the sun shining brightly. Unless you’re a small farmer, however, that’s likely not the case.
What Exactly is “Free-Range”?
If chickens are raised free-range, it ideally means that they are allowed to roam freely and are not confined in a cage. While a large yard or pasture may still be fenced-in, these birds are allowed a considerable amount of exercise, sunlight, and opportunities for foraging. This is wonderful, in theory. The US Department of Agriculture, however, merely requires that meat chickens have access to the outdoors to be labeled as “free-range,” meaning that they may have access to dirt or gravel. There’s no requirement that a “pasture” be available. Small-scale farmers are more likely to be truly free-range, allowing their birds plenty of space to roam. If you want truly free-range eggs or meat, make sure that your poultry comes from pasture-fed flocks.
What are the Benefits of Free-Range?
True free-range hens that have access to a healthy environment and eat a natural, healthy diet produce more nutritious eggs than their factory-farm counterparts. Rather than eating grain alone, free-range birds are able to dine on grass and bugs too. This does a lot for their eggs. Mother Earth News reported that pasture-fed, free-range chickens produce eggs with 1/3 the cholesterol and ¼ the saturated fat as their conventional counterparts. They also have more vitamin a, vitamin e, and omega 3 fatty acids. Free-range chicken meat is higher in protein, higher in good fat, and lower in bad fat than conventional chicken meat. These chickens are also free from unnecessary antibiotic consumption, a true problem in factory farms. Free-range, pasture-raised meat and eggs taste great too.
Considering Free-Range Birds
Ideally, free-range chickens are allowed to wander as they please. Depending on where you live, this could be idealic or dangerous. If you live in a city, you simply can’t allow your birds to wander down the street and into your neighbor’s property. Predators are also a huge threat. Make sure that your birds have a safe place to take shelter from predators and inclement weather and don’t put your chicks out while they are still very young. Free-range birds can be healthy and natural, but they can also be an easy meal for a lurking predator or run over by a passing vehicle.
If you have the space, free-range is absolutely the way to go. Just make sure that you have the vegetation to sustain your flock and adequate protection. Even free range birds must have a clean coop to come home to at night. Keep away from hormones and antibiotics and keep a careful eye out for danger. Your flock with thank you.