The Why and How of Free Range Chickens:
USDA regulations specify that “free-range” means poultry has access to an area outside the pen. The regulations do not specify how long they have access or how large an area they have access to. Some larger commercial producers use the term “free-range” as a gimmick to sell more eggs. Small producers, on the other hand, use free-range to give their backyard flock a diverse diet and improve the quality of eggs and meat they produce.
There are benefits to raising chickens on free range, and there are dangers. One of the greatest benefits to the flock owner is that the chickens get a widely diverse diet at no extra charge. They will scratch and peck and wander around the available farmstead all day finding their own food, including bugs, seeds and vegetation. The chickens are still fed a grain supplement, but require much less after a day of foraging.
One of the greatest dangers to free range poultry is predators. A chicken on open ground, especially one that has been newly introduced to the range, is easy prey to a fox, coyote, hawk or stray dogs.
Eggs from free-range hens have a darker yolk, and most people say they taste better than eggs from hens that don’t get to range outdoors. The 2005 and 2007 Mother Earth News egg testing projects found that free-range eggs are higher in folic acid, have 1/3 less cholesterol, ¼ less saturated fat, seven times as much beta carotene and 3 times more Vitamin E.1 Another study, conducted at Penn State University, found three times the Omega-3 fatty acids and 40% more vitamin A.2
The benefits of these heart-healthy nutrients are one reason why there is a trend among consumers to seek out grass-fed meats.
Because the hens get regular exercise on the range, the meat also has a better texture and the animals have considerably less fat, a fact confirmed in studies by USDA-ARS and Virginia Tech.
Being unconfined makes the chickens less likely to peck each other, which will happen when a penned flock gets overcrowded. Stress-related illness in a flock can also require the use of antibiotics. But a free-range flock has less stress, thus fewer (and sometimes no) drugs are used in producing eggs and meat. But, apparently, it’s the “free-range” aspect of the product, rather than the “organic,” that makes the difference. A USDA-ARS study quoted in Time found that the healthy portion of an egg white, the thickest part, was essentially no different in organic eggs (which can be produced by caged birds) than factory-produced eggs.
Another ARS study found that free-range chicken has a lower level of salmonella than chickens raised conventionally. That was corroborated by a James Madison University study that showed 96% less bacterial contamination in free-range chicken.
Running poultry on free range means that about two-thirds of the manure is deposited outside the pen during active foraging, in essence returning the nutrients back to the land. Therefore less labor is required to clean the home coop.
There are quite a few methods of free range in use today among small flock owners. One of the most popular is the portable chicken coop, sometimes referred to as a chicken tractor. The coop sits on a movable apparatus, usually wheels, and the producer moves the coop from place to place within a field, allowing chickens new, clean territory to forage every so often. The coop has laying boxes and a poultry water fountain. Some producers move the coop every couple days, and others wait a week or so. Hens are creatures of habit and will return to the coop at night, where they are closed in to protect them from nocturnal predators. Often a fence is used to discourage predators during the daylight hours. Of course, the fence needs to be portable if it doesn’t enclose the entire field. Some producers use electric fence, and some use poultry netting.
There is an excellent web site that discusses portable coops and free-range in general. Fred’s Fine Fowl is another good source of information. And BuildChickenCoops has photos, a variety of examples and plans for sale.
While free-range chickens eggs have their own set of challenges, ultimately making them more expensive to produce on a small scale, they seem to be well worth the extra investment when it comes to nutrition.