Those labels on chicken can be confusing – and understanding the difference between different chicken raising practices is key if you intend to raise your own chickens, whether for eggs, meat, or both. Consumers have become very aware of factory farming and are often willing to pay more for chicken or eggs that they know did not come from a “battery farm” – but often do not understand what free range actually is. Understand the difference between free range vs. pasture raised chickens to decide which is the better practice for you.
The fact is that there is a difference between “free range” and “pasture raised” – but unfortunately there are no legal requirements for the term. The industry standard for “free range” is that the chickens have access to the outside, but there’s no definition as to how much access, for how long, or how much space – meaning that sometimes your free range chicken is basically only seeing the outside or may not even know the outside area exist. This standard also applies only to poultry, not to eggs.
The most common arrangement is a fenced outside area with free access to a stationary coop. Some free range chickens are also brought inside at night. The Certified Humane standard is better – and this does give an advantage to backyard breeders – especially those willing to be transparent and show pictures of their chickens in their space.
Pasture raised also has no legal definition, but implies that the chickens have access to grass. Pasture raised poultry is by definition free range but does not necessarily meet the standard of people outside the industry, who think that free range poultry has complete freedom to roam. Most pasture raised chickens are actually kept in fairly small pens on grass, which are rotated so that the chickens do not denude the pasture. Pasture raised poultry has a number of advantages – the chief two of which are a reduction in feed cost (because the chickens are foraging) and improved nutritional quality of the eggs.
So, which should you use? It really depends. First of all, the most common cause of mortality amongst free range chickens is predation. In most environments, your chickens are better off in a pen and, if there are hawks in the area, it should be roofed. But the real key is whether you can reasonably give your chickens access to pasture. For a backyard breeder, the primary con of pasture raising chickens is having enough pasture. Yes, you can use your lawn, but it has to be large enough in relation to the number of chickens you have not to be denuded. Also, most residential lawns are monocultures that don’t provide chickens with enough insects or seeds (and, of course, you will have to give up spraying). This means that a lawn being used to raise chickens will have more weeds and, if you choose to reseed it as actual pasture, may not be as attractive.
In short, while both methods are better than keeping chickens in a cage or cooped up, there are distinct differences between free range vs. pasture raised chickens.
Choose free range if you cannot provide enough pasture for chickens not to destroy it, or if you want to monitor and control your chicken’s feed to a greater degree (note that chickens are natural omnivores and like to eat bugs, but it is still easier to control the feed of animals kept in a bare area). Choose pasture raised poultry if you have space and are willing to make, if necessary, aesthetic sacrifices.
Another disadvantage of pasture raised is the need to move the coop regularly, so make allowances for the time and physical effort involved when making your decision. Remember that neither has a legal definition and that you should be willing to back up your claims for the sake of educating consumers.