Here at Red Barn Acres, we believe in raising happy and healthy animals. To us, that means providing adequate shelter, ample room to roam, nutritious food, proper supplements, water, love, and plenty of sunshine. If you search for the meaning of the terms free range and cage free, you’ll find many variations of the definition.
On our farm, our chickens are allowed to freely roam our 1.5 acre pasture all year, rain or shine, or snow. The chickens that we raise for meat production are raised in what are called “tractors” made out of old swingsets. We move these every day or so to allow the broilers to have access to new grass–which means they are always getting exercise and remaining healthy. Not to mention, it’s great for the soil and its regeneration, but that science is beyond me, and a totally different blog post. We keep our broilers separate from our egg producers because their feed rations are different. We only keep a few birds to each pen, making sure they still have plenty of room to exercise and forage.
So what exactly does the term “free range” mean? Any normal person would assume that the bird has free range to roam anywhere. While that might ring true in some cases, it’s not always the case. According to the USDA, in order for egg producers to label their eggs as Free Range, “Producers must demonstrate to the Agency that the poultry has had access to the outside.” I suppose you could take it at that, or you could delve a little deeper and question exactly what it could mean. Does it mean a large commercial facility with tens of thousands of chickens crammed into a floor barn with a small hole in the wall that is opened for a few hours a day (or in some cases a half hour) and the chickens are permitted to wander out onto a cement slab? Is there access to bugs, grass, microbes? Can the chickens scratch around and live instinctively? Or, are the chickens constantly granted access to fields of grass, bugs, plant materials, the minerals and nutrients in the soil, worms, etc? (YES! Chickens are omnivores and consume meat and plant material).
Free Range can essentially mean two things: a farmer opening his chicken coop door at dawn to his pasture/entire farm and shutting his hens safely in at dusk. It could also mean a commercial egg farm with a small opening leading to a paved area for a half an hour or so a day. Technically, in both scenarios the chickens have had access to the outdoors, correct?
So then, you ask, what does “Cage Free” mean? Many people will tell you “It’s exactly the same as free range.” But… is it really? Would it shock you to know that cage free only means that the birds are not kept in small tight cages, but that they’re raised in commercial barns so big you could park jumbo sized airplanes in them? They are often times packed so close together inside that the chickens really don’t have room to move around and be chickens. More often than not, they don’t even get to see the sun in their life time.
The term “Cage Free” is not regulated by the USDA or the FDA. Producers are left to come up with their own definitions of the term, and even their own “Cage Free” policies. One can expect, that just to earn a little more of your hard earned money, they’ll get rid of the cage and slap the Cage Free label on the egg carton–but still restrict their birds to a floor barn with no access to the outside environment, packing as many birds as they can into that square footage.
You might ask me if my chickens are truly “Free Range” if they are kept in a fenced in pasture.
My answer: yes. And here’s why:
We used to literally let our chickens roam where ever they wanted. This meant that they crossed the road, dug up the flower beds at the neighbors, pooped all over the neighbor’s yard, got into MY gardens, laid eggs where they weren’t supposed to, etc. I got tired of picking up the bodies of my beloved hens on the side of the road. I got tired of finding explosive rotten eggs under my flowers. I got sick of wondering if my hens were going to be dragged away by wild animals including foxes, coyotes, raccoons, etc. I grew weary of wondering if my neighbors were going to get mad that my hens were always in their yard. We decided to give them a large enough pasture that they would never grow bored. While I understand the danger of predatory animals is still there, I feel better knowing that my animals have a decent “layer” of protection and they won’t be terrorizing the neighbors.
You will often hear me say, “You vote with your dollar” and I believe the saying rings true. We see it with Organic and Non GMO products, however, I still advise you to research the company and their core values before jumping on the bandwagon. Big companies, like General Mills (who own Cascadian Farms and Annies) will do anything to earn your dollar…and this means buying small organic companies that are doing excellent as true believers in Organic standards, and then changing the recipes to include things other than true organic incredients, while still claiming they’re organic. (This is another reason I don’t trust the Organic seal 100%).
In conclusion, I hope that I have given you some valuable insight when it comes to the “Free Range” and “Cage Free” labels on your grocery store eggs. Truthfully, in the end, the words “Free Range” and “Cage Free” mean absolutely nothing– especially if you do not have a relationship with the farmer from whom you purchase eggs. Ultimately, it is your decision as to where you purchase eggs from and what label is on them. I can assure you that our hens (and ducks) ARE Free Range and most definitely Cage Free. It is up to you, the buyer, to decide how you vote with your dollar.