What is ‘Free-Range Chicken’?

//What is ‘Free-Range Chicken’?

What is ‘Free-Range Chicken’?

Feeding our flock of free-range laying hens on pasture. Note the poultry nets on either side of the run, keeping the chickens in, and foxes out.

I was raised in a chicken coop. Seriously.

Okay, okay… I didn’t literally grow up inside a chicken coop. I didn’t sleep there, or do my homework perched on a chicken roost. But I did spend a tremendous amount of time inside my grandmother’s hen house when I was a kid: gathering eggs, feeding the birds, and simply enjoying the passing parade of poultry. As a five year old, there were few places I’d have rather been than surrounded by a flock of happy, singing chickens.

There were only about twenty or thirty birds in all, but they produced more than enough eggs to feed our family. My grandmother used the extra eggs for baking, or sold them after church. We ate fried chicken on Sunday afternoons, and scrambled eggs for breakfast throughout the week. I never heard of a ‘chicken nugget’ until I was well into my teens.

Thirty years later, I found myself raising thousands of chickens on pasture each year, making a living on our family farm by selling free-range chicken and eggs at farmers markets. To many shoppers, the words ‘free-range’, ‘local’ and ‘organic’ can be, understandably, confusing terms. Let’s start with what ‘free-range chicken’ means on my farm:

Young meat chickens enjoying fresh pasture. Note the small doors cut into the side of the hutches. Having multiple doors allows us to create new alleys with our nets, providing fresh pasture for our foraging birds.

A free-range chicken is a bird that is allowed constant access to the outdoors, with plenty of fresh vegetation, sunshine and room to exercise. Moreover, it has not been given any chemicals (antibiotics, for example) of any kind.

Frequently, this type of production is called ‘pastured poultry,’ though models can vary significantly from one farm to another. To better clarify what a free-range chicken is, let’s discuss what it’s definitely not.

 

Two Very Different Types of Chicken

According to these USDA statistics, in 2010, the United States produced over 36 billion pounds of chicken. To put this number in perspective, this article by the University of Wisconsin Madison cites that even well into this  century, only 12 U.S. producers could be identified who raised more than 4,000 free-range chickens a year. Extrapolating UWM’s math, that’s roughly 200,000 thousand pounds of free-range chicken, but only .05% of chicken being raised nationwide. Put another way, that’s a wafer-thin .0006 pound slice of free-range chicken per American citizen, per year.

Let me quickly say that I believe there are more than 12 producers raising flocks of over 4,000 free-range chickens nationwide. (To support this assertion, I personally know several farmers who raise more than 4,000 free-range chickens, who weren’t identified in the survey). But even if we triple or quadruple these numbers, we’re still not close to approaching 1% of the total number of chickens raised each year in the United States.

A happy chicken will lay about 270 eggs a year, or about 5 eggs per week. Our 900 hens are currently laying about 650 eggs a day.

Regardless of the statistics, the takeaway here is this: most chickens are not raised free-range. The vast majority of chickens raised in America are grown in confinement buildings, with feed, water and air piped in. These chickens never see sunshine, much less fresh grass. According to the USDA’s official standards, ‘free-range’ means little more than chickens having occasional access to the outside world. For many shoppers, this ambiguous definition creates a disconnect with what they believe free-range chicken to be, and what the reality truly is.

By now, you might have seen the Meatrix or read Fast Food Nation, so I won’t digress very far into how most chickens in America are raised. But if you’ve ever wondered why free-range chicken seems so “expensive,” simply take a trip to a confinement poultry operation to learn why factory farmed chicken is so “cheap.” The contrast between free-range and confinement chicken farms never fails to make an immediate impression.

Raising Free-Range Chickens Can Be… Challenging

You might be asking yourself, “if free-range chicken is really so great, then why aren’t more farmers raising them this way?” To start with, raising free-range chickens is more than just a job. It’s a way of life. Ever heard the expression ‘waking up with the chickens’? How about ‘the early bird gets the worm’? There’s a reason for these cliches: chickens rise well before dawn. They begin foraging at first light, and many of them have already laid an egg by the time most folks step into the office for the morning. If you want to be a free-range chicken farmer, you’d better enjoy getting up very early.

More importantly, unlike confinement chickens —protected inside buildings with automated lights and temperature controlled conditions— birds raised on pasture are incredibly vulnerable to all sorts of natural calamities. Unrelenting heat. Freezing wind and snow. A seemingly endless list of predators (foxes, hawks, raccoons, neighbor’s dogs, etc.). And because laying hens need about 16 hours of light each day to lay their best, even daylight can be a major factor. Still, when properly managed, raising birds this way ensures a life filled with fresh air, green grass, and beautiful sunshine. Who wouldn’t want that?

What I Learned From My Grandmother

Robert has one of our laying boxes open. The chickens access their nests from the inside, and we gather the eggs from the outside. Notice how green the grass is next to where they have recently grazed. The brown grass will now get 60 days of recovery time before the birds get that strip of pasture again.

Grandmother had it all figured out. Close the door to their coop at night, to protect the hens from chicken-eating varmints. Open them up first thing in the morning, so they get the tastiest bugs. Keep them nearby, so you’ll always know what they’re up to. And have a fat farm dog on the porch, as a deterrent to daytime predators that might be passing through.

Feed them a little chicken feed, but not so much that they stop foraging. Give them access to plenty of fresh air and exercise. Keep the bedding in the coop clean and airy. And always keep fresh, green vegetation in front of them.

When I first decided to raise free-range chickens (both meat birds as well as egg layers), each of these aspects were major challenges. How would I protect the chickens from foxes and hawks? How would I ensure they had fresh grass year round? Could I protect them from wind and rain, while providing 24 hour access for free-ranging? I put together this video to explain how 15 years of free-range experimentation finally came together:

Free Range Chicken Video

To further illustrate how we do things, here are a couple of simple drawings. Imagine that the free-range system is like hands on a clock. Every couple of days, the minute hand ticks forward one click, giving the chickens a fresh swath of pasture. The ‘soiled’ pasture behind them is now allowed 60 days of recovery. As the video explains, this is accomplished by moving an electrified net that keeps the chickens in, and the predators out.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Bottom Line: Get To Know Your Farmer

Free-range chicken really does exist. But like most good things in life, finding the source often requires a little legwork. While chickens labeled ‘free-range’ or ‘organic’ at the grocery store are probably raised as advertised, there’s simply no substitute for getting to know your free-range farmer in person. Unless these supermarket chickens come from a farm that you can actually visit (and see the birds in person), I recommend doing a little more research before actually buying one. Knowledge is power.

Want to raise your own chickens? Check out my books, where I take you through the entire process!

Growing Tomorrow (with 50 recipes!),

& Gaining Ground is a New York Times bestseller.

Growing-Tomorrow.3D

Order Gaining Ground on Amazon

http://www.indiebound.org/book/9780762787258

By | 2017-03-27T13:42:39+00:00 October 3rd, 2012|Farm|44 Comments

About the Author:

Forrest Pritchard is a full-time sustainable farmer and New York Times bestselling author, holding a BA in English and a BS in Geology from William & Mary. Smith Meadows, his farm, was one of the first “grass finished” operations in the country, and has sold at leading farmers’ markets in Washington DC for nearly two decades. Pritchard's first two books received starred reviews from The Washington Post, Publishers Weekly, Library Journal and NPR, and his latest book is set to debut in 2018.

44 Comments

  1. Adam Burnside October 4, 2012 at 6:09 am - Reply

    Loving the blog Forrest

    • Forrest Pritchard October 4, 2012 at 6:44 am

      Thanks Adam! It’s great to be back in touch with an old 4-H friend :^)

  2. Molly Moses October 4, 2012 at 11:47 am - Reply

    Can’t wait to read the book!

    • Forrest Pritchard October 4, 2012 at 4:00 pm

      Thank you, Molly! It will hit the bookstores this May.

  3. Rose from WI October 5, 2012 at 8:16 pm - Reply

    Very informative even to someone who has been buying her eggs from her farmer for years. Hits all the right points.
    Thanks for working hard to preserve local, sustainable, and nutritious foods and getting up with the chickens to do so!
    Your blogs are well-written, and I, too, look forward to your book. Press on!

    • Forrest Pritchard October 6, 2012 at 11:45 am

      Thanks, Rose, I appreciate the feedback :^)

  4. Alice Boatwright October 5, 2012 at 9:07 pm - Reply

    Thanks! I enjoyed this article very much. I used to live in California, where my husband and I enjoyed Rocky Jr free-range chickens. (I think they really are. . . ). Now we live in France where we are almost invariably disappointed with the chicken — even when you pay a very high price for it. Just can’t figure that out. The French are so good about supporting small business. I guess more research would be a good thing.

    • Forrest Pritchard October 6, 2012 at 11:43 am

      Hi Alice,

      One thing that comes to mind is that in France they are famous for ‘air chilling’ their birds, as opposed to in America where most birds are chilled in ice water. Also, the French raise a chicken known as ‘poulet rouge’, which is a much slower growing chicken than the Cornish Cross, which is what most American farmers grow. So perhaps these are contributing factors?

  5. Sylvie in Rappahannock October 17, 2012 at 8:26 am - Reply

    The “label rouge” chicken aren’t a breed, but label of quality defining how the bird is raised – on pasture, humanely, respecting the environement, limited number of chciken houses and sizes etc etc it is also tied to regional heritage breed and traditional regional method of production – so you have “label rouge” with defined geographical areas too .
    And yes, breeds raised in France (if they aren’t the factory-farm things…. which exists) are older breed, smaller, leaner animals with smaller breasts – much smaller than in the US – and they grow slower too…. They lend themselves better to stew and stove-top cooking than roasts. Sort of like a heritage turkey vs. Broad Breasted White….
    Anyway, here is an English-language doc on the label rouge program (from ATTRA)
    http://cecentralsierra.ucanr.org/files/122130.pdf

    • Forrest Pritchard October 17, 2012 at 3:31 pm

      Sylvie,

      Thanks for the clarification. In America, have always heard these birds either referred to as Poulet Rouge, or increasingly “Freedom Rangers.”

  6. Sylvie in Rappahannock October 17, 2012 at 5:25 pm - Reply

    Forrest, yes I have seen both terms (although Freedom Rangers is too close to my taste to “freedom fries”, something that still makes me tick almost 10 years later – I guess French Rangers would not do… :)….
    Poulet Rouge seems to be the name American farms use for the Naked Neck breed when they follow the Label Rouge program guidelines. But yes, older breed that grows slowly, forage etc and are deeply flavorful

  7. James November 7, 2012 at 11:07 pm - Reply

    I laughed at your opening comment. The first house I lived in as a child was a renovated chicken house near Martinsburg. I guess I really did grow up in a chicken coop.

    • Forrest Pritchard November 13, 2012 at 7:48 pm

      Hey James,

      It takes one to know one! :^)

  8. judy January 8, 2013 at 7:18 am - Reply

    Wonderfully interesting, and indeed a way of life that I respect. And covet! Living in cluster deed restricted housing isn’t good for me, how could coop-life be good for chickens? Thank you for the efforts you put into your 4,000 birds, and best wishes to your family and staff.

    • Forrest Pritchard January 8, 2013 at 7:37 am

      Thanks, Judy. Yes, I’m very lucky to be a farmer, especially one who is able to sell free-range eggs directly to appreciative customers!

  9. […] is a free range chicken, really, or should be at least. Read more about it. That is how I want my chicken. Share this: […]

  10. Beverly Walker May 29, 2013 at 11:14 am - Reply

    My biggest predator threat here in the mountains of New Hampshire is starving black bears out of hibernation before there are any green things to eat, and in the fall before hibernation. This April, I lost 8 out of 11 laying chickens during a 6 day siege on my coop built into the corner of a long shed. The three remaining have PTSD and one doesn’t talk at all these days.

    I have since purchased electric poultry netting and hung several aluminum pie plates along the sides of the netting with honey on them. I’m told that a jolt on the bear’s tongue will really discourage it. I am also relieved of the worry from foxes and weasels as well. I will replace the flock with pullets and slowly merge the two groups together. The pullets can live in the old A-frame chicken tractor in a fenced area of their own until then.

    It gets very cold here (-30 some nights) in the winter so my coop must be as free of drafts as possible. I bring fresh water twice or three time a day. They don’t like to go out if there is snow on the ground but occasionally will if I put some shavings down on top of the pounded down snow. They stay warm at night hunkered together on the roost. I saw no signs of trouble with their feet or combs. Egg production was down, of course.

    I came to raising chicken very late in life (age 70) but felt compelled to do so nevertheless. I been studying permaculture and use the chickens in the fall to clean up and fertilize my garden.

    Thank you for sharing your life adventures through your book. It was a wonderful, informative read.

    Beverly

    • Forrest Pritchard May 29, 2013 at 12:16 pm

      Thanks for sharing this, Beverly. So many challenges depending on what part of the country you’re from… and I can only imagine what an entire winter in New Hampshire must be like. You’re a brave woman! Indeed, if you’ve raised chickens, then you’ve lost chickens. Sad to say, but true. Predators always find a way to keep us on our toes.

      Thanks so much for reading my book, and I’m so very glad you enjoyed it!

      Best regards,

      Forrest

  11. Janelle June 11, 2013 at 10:18 pm - Reply

    Its just so heartwarming to know that you raise your chickens so humanely while sustaining the land. It pains me to see the conditions that farm animals are raised in our country. I will definely be out to buy your book and read very soon. Thank you for your hard work and giving us hope there are still humane practices in our world.

    • Forrest Pritchard October 17, 2013 at 9:25 pm

      Thanks Janelle! We’re just trying to hold up our end of the bargain the best way we know how.

  12. […] 365 days a year, even in the snow. (I’ve written a comprehensive blog about how all this works HERE, along with an accompanying videos HERE and HERE.) From the stationary coop, there are access doors […]

  13. Brett July 6, 2013 at 7:38 pm - Reply

    So nice to see people doing the only type of farming that should exist. I grew up on the farm just as you did and really love the lifestyle. Have had to move to city to make money but plan in the next few months to build up my own free range chicken farm.. can’t wait to get back into nature!!

  14. zohaa October 20, 2013 at 8:32 am - Reply

    Im doing a project about comparing the free-range and factory farmed chickens thanks for the useful info!

  15. Some More Egg-onomics « On Pasture December 16, 2013 at 10:02 pm - Reply

    […] (For more on how we do this, check out this article “Mob Grazing With Chickens” and this post on my blog.)  On our farm, true sustainability is found in our herbivores, the sheep and cattle. Our pigs, […]

  16. Jaclyn Snyder January 18, 2014 at 10:06 am - Reply

    Loved the information you provided. I have been wanted to pasture raise chicken for awhile but everyone seems to think it impossible. I am so happy I found this sight. I am curious we only have about 3 acres of pasture to raise them on how many chickens are a healthy number to raise for both them and the ground? I so appreciate you sharing the way you farm it’s so encouraging!!

  17. Pitsi Senosha February 26, 2014 at 6:16 am - Reply

    Thank you for the information. I want to try this, South African winter is not extreme, I am sure they will survive. i will start with a few hens for eggs.

  18. jane March 19, 2014 at 4:34 pm - Reply

    We have free range chickens (by their own doing!). They lay eggs here and there. Sometimes I find a clutch with 5 or 6 eggs. They are cold so I know the chicken is not setting them. My question is Are the eggs okay to eat even though I don’t know how long they have been sitting there?

  19. What to Feed Chickens April 24, 2014 at 4:50 pm - Reply

    Free range chickens eggs are way better than regular. Recently I have convinced myself to try them and from that point I only purchase eggs from a free range!

  20. Betty July 5, 2014 at 7:48 am - Reply

    “…Feed them a little chicken feed…” how much, how often & what is in this feed?

  21. Dwight Eichorn September 21, 2014 at 2:59 pm - Reply

    From southern Michigan, and wondering if and how I could cost effectively keep my 250+ flock of laying hens warmer especially during the night in the winter. Was wondering about using a propane water heater and building their roosts with PVC pipe and running the warm/hot water through the pipes. I would greatly appreciate your thoughts on this idea. Dwight Eichorn

  22. felicitas njoroge October 31, 2014 at 12:43 am - Reply

    from kaimbu kenya, planning on rearing freerange chicken. thank you for sharing your thoughts on the same

  23. V.R.H June 29, 2015 at 12:48 pm - Reply

    Very Insightful! Thank You!

  24. Myo Aung,Mr July 25, 2015 at 8:19 pm - Reply

    Thanks a lot.

  25. Aden July 26, 2015 at 8:28 am - Reply

    I am also planning to start a free range chicken farm.
    And would like to get more knowledge (like your book)
    Thank you

  26. Ann Nicholson July 27, 2015 at 5:06 pm - Reply

    I live just outside of Boston. I never knew how badly the large corporations treated their chicken farmers, and worse off, the chickens themselves. I REFUSE TO BUY any of the big 5 corporate chickens any longer. Where can I buy Smith Meadows free-range chickens?

  27. Kevin September 8, 2015 at 12:00 pm - Reply

    You can have true free range chicken if your farm supports a more natural setting. Something like an acre of wooded area along with an acre of grass area. Chicken by nature will only forage for grass early in the morning and late in the evening to avoid the predators from above. They will stay and forage in the wooded area mostly during the sunlight hours to avoid hawks and eagles. To protect them from ground predator, leave a guard dog to chase away coyotes, foxes or raccoons at night. Leave plenty of bushes in between your wooded area and grass covers so your chickens can forage for bugs and run for cover against birds of prey. You would never have to worry about your chickens destroying your grass cover areas if you plant the type of grass along with clovers that your chickens like to eat. Again, chicken prefer foraging in wooded area because there are more bugs there vs the grass cover area so they would never be out there making themselves vulnerable for the birds of prey. Feed them only in the evening and they will be train to come back to the coop at night so you can protect them by locking them up for the night.
    You can always cross breed egg laying birds with meat birds for your own taste and to become self sufficient. Egg layers don’t sit on their eggs and most game types of birds will sit on their eggs but are poor egg producers. For example: crossing RI Reds with Thai will give you a more meatier bird that still sits on the eggs. Crossing a RI Red with a game cock will give you a lighter leaner bird that will also lay good amount of eggs and will still sit on the eggs if you let it.

    • Forrest Pritchard September 8, 2015 at 8:19 pm

      That hasn’t been my experience, but very glad that it works for you!

  28. Elizabeth Drew January 26, 2016 at 11:50 am - Reply

    Forrest, wondering what breed of chickens you use for the layers and boilers? My husband and I left DC in 2010, but we continue to follow your work. We currently have 15 layers and use net fencing to rotate their pasture! Thank you!

    • Forrest Pritchard January 26, 2016 at 8:36 pm

      We use Barred Rock/Rhode Island Red cross for our layers, and Cornish Cross for our broilers.

  29. Anna Beall April 4, 2016 at 6:43 am - Reply

    Hi Forrest

    I am in the process of beginning an egg share program in northern Virginia. My question for you is about space for the amount of birds I would like to have. My goal is between 150 and 200 laying hens. They will be kept in converted 19 ft travel trailers. How many trailers do you think I will need? I was thinking two. And how many acres total do you think they will need access to? I will move my electric fencing for mob grazing when the ground seems complete of availability to the chickens but if I rotate closer to once a week how many acre total will they need?
    Also here in Virginia we are having nasty coyote problems. Will the 4ft electric fencing really keep them out? I have never used electric fencing and wonder if there is any good articles you could point out that give a good overview to all the specifics?

    Thank you and follow you regularly!!

  30. Fateema Fakih February 19, 2017 at 8:03 am - Reply

    I have a question,hope i get an answer for this

    In my farmers market,i find free range chicken and country chicken
    When i interacted with the farmers,they said country chicken takes about a year to be fully grown well as on the other hand free range chicken is cut aftr 40-45 days
    I ddnt really understand the answer to be honest as they claimed the chicken was free from any antibiotics n stuffs of that kind

    • Forrest Pritchard February 19, 2017 at 10:07 pm

      It typically takes between 7 to 9 weeks (49-63 days) for a free-range chicken to reach live slaughter weight of 5 pounds, very much depends on the system, feed, time of year, etc. I’ve never heard the distinction of “country chicken”, but I’m guessing perhaps this is what I call a “stew hen” or “spent hen”? I.e., a laying hen that has gone through at least one laying cycle. The first bird is bred as a meat bird, the second is bred as an egg-laying bird.

    • Fateema Fakih February 19, 2017 at 10:46 pm

      Thank you for your prompt reply!
      I tried both the chicken,the free range is better in taste n texture than the ones that r found in supermarkets which i totally avoid now and the meat of country chicken is more like red meat in colour and it takes way more time to cook than a free range chicken would and yes its bones are very hard unlike other chickens and its meat has more flavour

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