In an age where your food comes from all corners of the country and even the globe, people understandably want to know how their food came to be and where it came from. When it comes to poultry, there are many different descriptions and words used to describe how a bird was raised. Terms like free range chickens, “pasture raised” chickens, or cage free chickens all describe how a bird was brought up. Let’s go a little more in depth into these words to find out exactly what they mean and how it affects you as either someone raising the birds, eating them, or both!
Free Range Chickens
Free range is a term that you’ve probably heard before. There’s a good chance you have somewhat of an understanding as to what it means. That being said, not everyone knows what free range chickens truly are. It’s technically defined as a method of farming where the animals can roam freely outdoors as opposed to being inside an enclosure for 24 hours a day. Simple enough. On most farms, the “range” in which the animals can roam upon is enclosed by another fence. So the birds aren’t raised on an open range without any fencing, but the natural sunlight and exercise provided to them in the outdoor setting is extremely healthy and conducive to a chicken’s natural lifestyle. You can have free range eggs, meat, or dairy products. Free range just indicates the animal who laid the eggs or provided the meat was given access to the outdoors. Free range was actually the main method of farming until the discovery of the crucial vitamins A and D. Once we understood how these vitamins effected a bird’s development and egg-laying, we were able to confine them and raise them in a cheaper and more efficient manner. Free range chickens are rising in popularity again today as conscious consumers look for a more natural and humane source for meat and eggs. Because they’re not as efficient to raise as factory-raised flocks, free range birds and the meat or eggs they provide are often more expensive.
The USDA Definition
The USDA’s definition of free range technically means “having access to the outdoors.” In some cases, this “access” may be as small as a pop hole for the bird to stick its head outside. Unfortunately, farms and raisers will abuse the “free range” label. They will pack the birds quite heavily into a confined space with a just a tiny outdoor run to get sunlight. As you can understand, this is different from the “free range chickens” image many people have in their head when they hear or read those words.
Pasture Raised and Grass Fed
To help navigate these tricky definitions, the USDA has implemented more terms and categories to help you understand even further how “free range” your birds really are. “Pasture-raised” poultry are free range chickens that are fed from a pasture and also might be fed supplemental grains and other food. Pasture-raised and grass-fed are often confused because many people believe they mean the same thing. Pasture-raised poultry defines where the birds eat while grass-fed defines what the animal eats. A grass-fed animal might be fed grass but not out of a pasture. One term isn’t necessarily superior to the other, as it really depends on what’s important to you as a consumer. For example, if it’s important to you that the animal was eating in the outdoors in an actually free environment, then pasture-raised might be in your best interest. If you want to be sure the animal ate grass and stuck completely to its natural diet, you might choose grass-fed. What’s most important is that you don’t get tricked into automatically thinking a “free range” bird or cow has lived its entire life frolicking in a pasture, as unfortunately this is not always the case. A pasture-raised animal can definitely be grass-fed, but it’s the supplements often added to their diet that makes them not a strictly grass-fed animal. And a grass-fed animal could never see the light of day but their diet will be what’s natural to them and their species. Sometimes you don’t see 100% grass-fed *insert animal name here* simply because that animal doesn’t naturally eat grass like a cow.
Lastly, “cage free” is another term you might see that usually applies to eggs. Cage free hens refer to birds not raised in the stereotypical “battery cages” that most people think of when they picture a factory farm. These are the tiny cages where the birds are stuffed in like sardines. Cage free birds usually refer to birds who are able to spread their wings, walk around, and lay their eggs much more naturally. Many farms that raise “cage free” birds are run by 3rd parties who have strict certification guidelines that they reinforce to ensure the birds are raised the best way possible. Unfortunately, like the free range label, farmers and companies alike sometimes abuse the term “cage free.” They can still stick birds into very confined spaces just large enough not to be considered “cage free.” It all comes down to research and understanding the reputation and nature of the company you’re buying from. Unless you get to know your farm or farmer, you may never truly know how the birds were raised. Visit your local farmers market, talk to your farmers, schedule a farm visit or tour! Get out there and find out who is growing your food, and you can then make the best decisions on what you eat.
It’s important to realize that these terms don’t just apply to buying food from the store. All these terms can refer to how you raise your own animals as well. If you have a backyard farm, it’s a good chance your animals are already “free range.” And it’s up to you what you think might be the best way to feed your animals!