People absolutely love it when they find out that the chicken eggs or chicken meat they have purchased have come from free-range chickens. So, what does free-range chickens mean? Do you really know what free range chickens are? What is free range chicken farming all about? What is the difference between free range and cage free chickens?
That is what we want to discuss with you on this page.
What Does Free-Range Chickens Mean?
What does it mean for a chicken to be free range? Let’s start by talking about strictly commercial free-range.
We will focus mostly on the United States because other countries have more ‘rules’ and much tighter regulations here.
When people normally think about ‘free-range chickens’, they think that the chickens they are coming from have access to wide-open spaces where they can roam free. The truth is, they don’t.
Free range chickens definition: In the United States, free-range means that chickens simply have access to the world outdoors. Nothing more.
It could still be just as cramped out there as it is back inside the barn.
These chickens will be raised in the thousands too, so a lot of them will barely be able to move. Most will not be able to spread their wings.
In the European Union, the rules of free-range are a bit more well-defined. In these countries, it means that the chickens are able to roam freely to an outdoors area throughout the day. It also means that each chicken has a guaranteed 4-meters-square of space per hen, which is a surprising amount.
You are also not allowed to have a building filled with more than 2,500 chickens. Of course, it is still going to be a bit more cramped than if you were raising chickens in your backyard, but not to an amazing extent.
Free Range Chicken Farming
That being said, it is not all bad in the world of commercial farming. There are some smaller farming operations which will raise a few hundred hens at the most.
These hens will have access to a lot of space and can roam about however they wish. Again, not as brilliant as if you were raising the chickens in the comfort of your own home, but probably much better than the alternative for these birds.
Free Range Chicken Eggs
Once again, the United States doesn’t really have any restrictions when it comes to ‘free range’ eggs. As long as a chicken has access to the outdoors, the eggs can be labeled as free range.
In the European Union, there are rules. For example; there must be a certain number of nests available. This means one nest per 7 hens. There must also be space for the chickens to perch, and the floor must be covered in certain materials.
Of course, the same rules apply for access to the outdoors as with any other free range chickens.
It is worth noting that free range eggs look a bit different to eggs that come from the barn. You will find that the egg looks ‘healthier’ when you crack it open. This means a brighter orange yolk, which may also be a touch bigger than the norm.
This is because when chickens are released freely, they are more likely to have access to bugs and the like. This gives them a bit more protein in their diet, which means they can pump more nutrients into their eggs.
Raising Free Range Chickens
For many backyard chicken owners, the term ‘free-range’ can mean different things. For some, it means that chickens have complete access to the world outside.
This means that they can roam as and where they want throughout the daytime. Of course, since they are chickens, they will always return to the coop of an evening.
This is a completely natural behavior. It makes them feel safe and protected.
In practice, your chickens are probably not going to have access to roam without any restrictions. It is dangerous out there, and since you are likely located in a larger area (as opposed to a dedicated farm), then there is a bigger risk of chicken predators being out and about.
As a result, many people have stated that backyard chickens raised in a chicken run are completely fine to be classed as free-range. You may also want to consider an automatic chicken coop door in this case, so you wont go outside when it is cold and dark to open or close it.
Of course, there should be a reasonable amount of space available per chicken. You do not want them all squashed together like you would get on a farm, right? If you include a couple of toys and perches in their run, then they are going to be fine.
Remember; even if you do provide them with access to be completely free-range, you are probably not going to want them to be out all the time.
You will need to pull them back in if predators are about (like a possum), or maybe if the temperature plummets.
This means that going completely free-range means that you will have to have a smaller flock. It is the only way you can properly control the chickens.
Do Free Range Chickens Need Feed
Absolutely! For the most part, raising chickens to be free range isn’t that different to them being raised any other way. The only major difference is that if they are free range, they may have access to more protein sources from insects.
They may also be able to eat certain plants and the like. This means that they may consume less of the food you give them at certain times.
This isn’t a bad thing but, of course, you will still want to ensure that they always have a decent amount of food available. This way they can eat it if they want.
Best Chickens For Free Range
You may also see some birds labelled as cage free chickens. This means that they (obviously) were not raised in cages.
However, it also means that they did not have access to the outdoors. Instead, cage free chickens are often ‘stored’ in large barns in the thousands.
There is barely space to move their wings and any will be stuck in the same place for months and months on end.
We often hear the terms cage free chickens and free range chickens used interchangeably, so lets clarify. What is the difference between cage free and free range chickens.
Cage-Free Chickens vs. Free-Range
Both are different. As said earlier, true free range chickens should spend the vast majority of their day roam freely to an outdoors area. You may consider “free range” to mean chickens have continuous access to fresh air. They will eat all kinds of plants, insects, warms and bugs in a natural environment.
On the other hand, a cage-free chickens simply mean that the chickens are not kept in a cage (see the picture above). However, that doesn’t mean that they are allowed to spend their time to an outdoors area. Which means they will be kept in a large barn where all the chickens live together.
Free-Range Eggs vs. Cage-Free Eggs
A study from 2007 found that free-range eggs tested much better than a cage-free eggs. Moreover they have more nutrients:
- Free Range eggs have 1/3 less cholesterol than cage-free eggs
- Free Range eggs have 1/4 less saturated fat than cage-free eggs
- Have 2/3 more vitamin A
- Free Range eggs 2 times more omega-3 fatty acids than cage-free eggs
- 3 times more vitamin E
- 7 times more beta carotene
As a result, you will often find that free range eggs taste a bit better. Moreover, you may also find that they are packed to the brim with more nutrients. Nothing like what cage-free chickens will be able to produce, but close enough.
If you want to ensure that the eggs you bought come from a free-range bird, then look at the packaging, it should say so.