"Free Range” seems to be the new buzz word in egg terminology these days.
When you picture Free Range laying hens, do you picture happy, fluffy butted chickens roaming freely about in grass covered chicken yards, chasing bugs and eating greens? For some reason that’s the image that gets stuck in my head. But then again, I am envisioning my own little flock of hens with their stately rooster roaming freely around my yard. These chickens are about as Free Range as any chicken could possibly be. They roost in our barn and come and go as they please. They also lay their eggs where they please and we hunt for them every day.
To call my chickens “Free Range” is a bit of a misnomer. In fact, most back yard small flocks would likely fall somewhere between “Free Range” and “Pastured”.
So where do all of these chicken musings come from, you might ask?
My family recently toured a new, state-of-the-art chicken barn that a Hutterite colony put in a few miles from where I live in Whitlash, Montana. They will soon be marketing eggs from “Free Range” hens. While I think this is a good thing and certainly an improvement over Caged and even “Cage-Free” chickens, I think it’s important to know, as consumers, what these words really mean and to know just what kind of eggs you are buying at the grocery store.
Stock photo of caged commercial hens.
Caged: Eggs from these hens are on the lowest end of the price scale at the grocery store. According to the Humane Society of the United States “the vast majority of egg-laying hens in the United States are confined in battery cages. On average, each caged laying hen is afforded only 67 square inches of cage space—less space than a single sheet of letter-sized paper on which to live her entire life.”
Basically these hens sit in a little wire cage their entire life with just enough room to turn around. Their beak is trimmed off to make it blunt. Their food and water is dispensed on schedule. They lay their daily egg in the spot they have been standing for months and it rolls down the conveyer and into the egg crate for processing. These hens don’t see the light of day, can’t scratch, perch, roost, peck or even preen their feathers. A very sad existence for sure.
The entire life of one of these hens is approximately two years or less than half of her natural life span at which time she is destroyed and a fresh young hen takes her place.
When I was a teen my mother acquired a handful of “retired” hens from an “egg factory” in town with the intent of having eggs and meat for food for our family. When she first got them, the poor hens had drooping pale pink combs from lack of daylight, when their combs should have been erect and red, their toenails were curled and their legs were so weak they could barely walk. I remember Mom turning them out in the chicken yard and watching sadly as they tried to adjust to life as a real chicken. We nursed them back to health and kept them as laying hens with our other chickens where they continued to lay and live happy lives.
Stock photo of cage free commerial hens.
Cage-Free: While Cage-Free has been a big improvement in the egg production industry regarding how our laying hens are treated, I think it’s important to understand what Cage-Free really means.
The main difference between Caged and Cage-Free is that cage-free hens are not kept in cages their entire lives. They are allowed to move about, perch and have free access to food and water.
Cage-free hens still have their beaks clipped to prevent pecking of themselves and other hens in their confined space. They still have no access to outdoors and daylight and are also in extremely crowded conditions with little floor space.
Cage-Free is still a major improvement over Caged hens, but by no means ideal.
Photo shows portion of future outdoor area for hens at Hutterite barn.
Free Range: The next step in improvement in quality of life and quality of egg is Free Range, which is the method our Hutterite neighbors will be using. With Free Range, hens are not only free of cages but they have access to outdoor pens where they can dust, peck, scratch and perch. Large amounts of birds are still raised with relatively little individual space. As with the Hutterite Colony barn, 45,000 laying hen are being raised in a 500 foot long barn with an outdoor range area. This will be giving each hen approximately one square foot of indoor floor space, which is not very much.
What I did appreciate about the tour of the new facility was knowing that each hen has adequate roosting areas, places to climb, free access to fresh water and food and nest boxes with privacy screens, which hens like. It appeared that a lot of planning went in to making the hens as comfortable and happy as possible given such crowded conditions.
I would also note that where square inches or feet per bird is concerned, how much space Free Range birds have depends not only on the space allotted to them indoors, which is often quite crowded, but also on the size of their outdoor access area which can be large or small depending on the producer.
Next we are on to Pastured Laying Hens, which happens to be my preference.
Photo from www.brittianfamilyfarm.com
With commercially pastured laying hens, hens are housed in some kind of moveable chicken house which usually affords them about 2-2.5 square feet of indoor floor space. They have free access to food and water, private nest boxes, roosts and perches.
But what really sets pastured hens apart is unrestricted access to outdoors, grass, dusting areas, sunshine and digging and scratching in the dirt. Their housing is moved around to large outdoor grass pens or pastures. They are left in each pasture only a small amount of time and then moved to new fresh pasture.
Pasture raised eggs are far more time consuming and expensive to raise but the results are humanely raised, healthy, happy hens and nutritious eggs with dark yellow yokes. These are certainly the eggs that cost the most, but are worth the extra money in my book.
So in a nut shell that’s the difference between Caged, Cage-Free, Free Range and Pastured laying hens. I hope it helps you make a more informed choice next time you are in the egg isle at the grocery store.