With the increased awareness the “integrity food movement” has raised about the nutritional benefits of chickens raised in more natural environments, chickens raised with more human techniques are more profitable than ever before. Now is a great time to invest in what many people refer to as “free-range flocks” to sell as backyard layer flocks or meat to individuals. But how do you get started?
Today we’re taking a closer look at what these alternative poultry production techniques are, why people are interested in them, and how you can build up a healthy flock as a grower with chicks sourced from highly reputable hatcheries like Freedom Ranger.
What are free-range chickens?
The term “free-range” is thrown around a lot. And used to describe many different things. Most confusingly of all, there isn’t an actual legal definition of what it means to be free-range. The USDA’s definition of free-range is brief and just says that “poultry has been allowed access to the outside”. They do not provide guidelines on how long or how often birds should be outside, how freely they should roam, the size or conditions of the outdoor area, etc. To call a chicken free-range, it simply has to have been allowed access to the outside.
Because of that ambiguity, the term is sometimes exploited by big producers. Along with the term “cage-free”. Like free-range, cage-free is a term that calls up images of chickens running about a farm foraging for grass, seeds, and insects. In reality, to be called cage-free, a chicken only needs to be raised without being caged. They do not need to have access to the outdoors, and it could mean that chickens still live 100% inside a building. Typically in high-volume corporate poultry farming operations, cage-free chickens do not have access to the outdoors.
Despite this lack of an actual definition for the term “free-range”, and the confusion surrounding the term, most people use it to describe chickens that live in stress-free environments with access to fresh air and sunlight during the day, and return to the safety of the chicken house or barn at night. And there are a number of alternative poultry production techniques and guidelines that achieve that goal, resulting in healthier birds that command higher prices.
In the industry, “pastured poultry” is not a sanctioned USDA label like free-range, but a descriptive term that means birds are raised fully on grass pastureland. Pastured birds live outside all the time, as appropriate, (depends on their age and the season of the year) in portable, floorless pens. Here they always have access to grass and are frequently “rotated” from area to area to allow pasture to recover. Pastured poultry is free-range, but it’s important to remember that the terms are not necessarily equal.
Semi-intensive poultry production
This farming system is appropriate for very large flocks like those grown in more commercial settings. Birds are based in permanent housing and given access to a yard or pasture in surrounding paddocks that allow for rotational grazing. Birds should be required to go outdoors for their health and well-being, but as we mentioned, it is not necessary for the free-range label to apply.
Yard and crop poultry production
The method most popular on family farms and for some backyard flocks, yard and crop production refers to fowl that are allowed to roam freely during daylight hours. At night, birds are closed into coops, a chicken house, or the barn to protect from predators. There is no formal rotating access to pasture, and perhaps no access to pasture depending on the particular farm environment, with this production style.
Innovative poultry production
This system utilizes rotation and floorless pens, but places birds on fallow land instead of pasture to forage. The land could be a garden or crop-growing area that will be put back into production in the future after birds have helped to weed and control insects through their foraging and fertilized with their manure.
Why free-range chickens are profitable
Not only has the rise of the integrity food movement in recent years prompted more consumer demand for free-range chickens, it has been scientifically shown time and again that free-range eggs and meat have both better taste and nutritional value. And the public is also beginning to distrust large-scale corporate food producers because of concerns over animal welfare and the widespread use of antibiotic chemicals in the food they’re purchasing to feed their families.
The market is stronger for free-range chicken, and it continues to grow. But there is another reason why free-range poultry production is more profitable. Getting started is not an expensive project. Depending on which production system you choose to use, your costs may be as little as purchasing a quantity of chicks from a responsible hatchery.
Tips and tricks for raising free-range chickens
There are many books and entire organizations dedicated to the process of growing and farming free-range chickens for sale to consumers, but there are just a few big things you’ll need to provide your chickens to be successful. Most importantly are keeping your chickens safe from predators while they are foraging, and providing supplemental feed. Some additional tips and tricks follow:
- First, you’ll need to assure that the chicks you purchase to grow are adequately cared for in a safe and draft-free indoor environment for several weeks before allowing them free-range access. Our article on chick care gives you everything you need to know to keep chicks healthy as they arrive and begin to grow under your care.
- Once they are old enough to be allowed outdoor access, you will need to provide well-constructed portable pens unless you are planning to let your flock roam freely in the yard and crop production styles we reviewed above. Alternative production pens can take many forms, but they need to protect from predators and offer some covered space for chickens to get out of the weather if they need to.
- Rotate pens often, and most likely on a daily basis. If you’re using a production method that require enclosures, moving chickens from place to place over pasture or forage land prevents overgrazing. Chickens are voracious eaters and will graze land to bare earth remarkably quickly.
- Mix innovative poultry production with produce growing for benefits to both systems. Free-range poultry growing in the innovative production method has been shown to be good for both birds and crops. You can maximize your profits from both your chickens and your organic vegetable crops by allowing your birds to provide natural pest control and fertilizer while benefiting from the nutrients the land provides.
If you’re ready to start the free-range poultry growing enterprise for yourself, Freedom Ranger Hatchery has the healthy chicks you need. We maintain our own breeding stock and are dedicated to sustainable farming methods that produce the highest quality chickens, as well as ducks and Guineas, too. Get in touch with questions about ordering or raising chickens in general.