There are many new chicken owners these days. There has been an upsurge in the farm to table movement of late, and chickens have been a part of it. More and more people want organic, and fresh, and locally grown, and locally raised, etc. Cage-raised eggs are taboo. Cage free and free-range are terms on the lips of today’s savvy shoppers. Are free-range eggs better than cage-raised eggs? Let’s explore some free-range chicken facts, and see what we find out.
What Does Free Range Mean?
There are currently at least two definitions for the term free-range. The USDA says that free-range chickens must have access to the outdoors. That’s it! That doesn’t mean that the chickens have to use that access, or actually be outside. So the eggs that you buy that say USDA certified free-range may not be roaming about the countryside laying eggs free of stress.
Humane Farm Animal Care (HFAC), a nonprofit located in Washington DC is a group of folk dedicated to the betterment of the lives of farm animals from birth until death. Their definition of free-range is a little different. Chickens must be outdoors for at least 6 hours per day, as long as the weather and the season permits it. And they must have at least two square feet to roam around in. Again, these eggs are not necessarily stress free, but they are getting a little closer.
My chickens enjoy true free ranging. I open their coop door in the morning and let them find their way back in the evening. If they want to go back in the coop to lay, or just drop one in the planter on my porch (they do both), then they are welcome to do that. That;s what I call free ranging, so the rest of this article will be based on my concept of free-range, and in the true spirit of the term.
What Are Some Advantages of Free Ranging.
Chickens love to eat. They spend the majority of their waking hours in pursuit of food. The good news about that is that the more they forage for their own food, the less feed you’ll have to buy. I notice a big difference in feed consumption going into spring, when the flock can find little crawlies and seed to munch on. I’d say my feed bill is cut in half compared to winter expenditure.
Ticks in the northeast are getting seemingly more plentiful as time goes by. Chickens will eat anything that moves, and most things that don’t. Ticks are on the free-range chicken’s menu.
Chasing things to eat gives the chickens exercise. Being stuck in a coop all day does not make for healthy chickens.
Coop cleaning is lessened tremendously when the birds are out all day. Less manure in the coop means less ammonia too, which can be a hazard; even lethal if allowed to get out of hand.
Egg gathering is a simpler chore when there are no hens in the chicken coop. Being pecked by a broody hen is not really painful, but it’s not all that pleasant either. It makes me jump every time – even when I know it’s coming.
Disadvantages of Free Range Chickens.
You can talk to a chicken all day, ’til you’re blue in the face, they will not listen. If you tell them not to go in the garden, they will make a beeline to the garden. If you tell them not to dig dust bath bathing holes in the front yard, you’d best be ready to pick up stones.
Chickens are messy creatures. They dig where they want to, poop where ever they happen to be when the urge hits them. Sometimes the urge hits you in the head when they are on the roost and you are gathering eggs late in the day. For some reason they love porches too.
They love to turn over leaves to look for worms and bugs. I put a pile of compost at the end of a raised bed one early afternoon. It was about one cubic yard in size. The next day the chickens spread that compost over the entire length of the bed, about twelve feet! This can’t really be called a disadvantage because now all I have to do is till it in. The chickens did all the spreading for me.
The actual answer to why the chicken crossed the road is – it didn’t know any better. You’re welcome. Free-range chickens do not recognize roadways as an area of potential danger. This is not only an obvious problem for the chickens, but it is a hazard for drivers as well. Happily, my flock stays away from the road 99.9% of the time. I’ve lost one banty rooster to traffic in the past year. …not a happy event.
Watching birds of prey making lazy circles in the sky is okay as a song lyric, but chickens see it more as a funeral dirge. Predators love chickens. Things that love to eat chickens: Foxes, wolves, bears, fishers, hawks, eagles, bobcats, dogs, weasels, you get the picture. I think a large mouth bass would eat a chicken if the chicken got close enough to the water’s edge. Everything carnivorous seems to like chicken. Free-ranging makes chickens more susceptible to predator attack.
To Free Range or Not To Free Range?
That is not really the question as far as I’m concerned. I believe that chickens, like all other animals, think, have feelings, feel fear, and have a fundamental understanding that they are alive. That being the case, they want to be free. The case could be made that they would be much safer, and have a better shot at a longer life if they were caged, or penned all the time. I say that longer doesn’t equal better.
Free range chickens have better relationships with their owners because they are outside alongside of their tenders, helping in their own destructive way. Chickens are wonderful creatures that have been part of humankind’s existence for thousands of years, giving of their selves, and are worthy of respect.
Free, Not Stressed, is Better For You.
Thich Nhat Hanh was a well respected, and quite famous, Buddhist monk who passed away in January 2022. I read a few of his books. I don’t remember which one it was in which he wrote about the stress of a creature being passed from animal to man, be it cattle or egg, but I believe it to be true. Maybe it’s not. Looking at the level of stress in the world today, is it worth chancing it? Let those chickens roam. It’s better for you.