Free range: Wikis


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Free-range chickens being fed outdoors.

Free range is a method of farming husbandry where the animals are allowed to roam freely instead of being contained in any manner. The term is used in two senses that do not overlap completely: as a farmer-centric description of husbandry methods, and as a consumer-centric description of them. Farmers practice free range to achieve free-range or humane certification to reduce feed costs, to improve the happiness and liveliness of their animals, to produce a higher-quality product, and as a method of raising multiple crops on the same land.

Free range may apply to meat, eggs or dairy farming.

In ranching, free-range livestock are permitted to roam without being fenced in, as opposed to fenced-in pastures. In many of the agriculture-based economies, free-range livestock are quite common.

The U.S. Food Safety and Inspection Service states that it does not know of any valid scientific information that shows that any specific type of chicken has more or less Salmonella bacteria than other poultry.[1][2]



If one allows "free range" to include "herding", free range was a typical husbandry method at least until the development of barbed wire and chicken wire. The generally poor understanding of nutrition and diseases before the Twentieth Century made it difficult to raise many livestock species without giving them access to a varied diet, and the labor of keeping livestock in confinement and carrying all their feed to them was prohibitive except for high-profit animals such as dairy cattle.

In the case of poultry, free range was the dominant system until the discovery of vitamins A and D in the 1920s allowed confinement to be practiced successfully on a commercial scale. Before that, green feed and sunshine (for the vitamin D) were necessary to provide the necessary vitamin content.[3] Some large commercial breeding flocks were reared on pasture into the 1950s. Nutritional science resulted in the increased use of confinement for other livestock species in much the same way.

United States

Traditional American usage equates "free-range" with "unfenced," and with the implication that there was no herdsman keeping them together or managing them in any way. Legally, a free-range jurisdiction allowed livestock (perhaps only of a few named species) to run free, and the owner was not liable for any damage they caused. In such jurisdictions, people who wished to avoid damage by livestock had to fence them out; in others, the owners had to fence them in.[4]

In recent years, with the days of free-range cattle mostly in the past, neither the presence of a "legal fence" surrounding the farm nor the pros and cons of old-time free-range ranching are the main points of interest. Instead, the term "free range" is mainly used as a marketing term rather than a husbandry term, meaning something on the order of, "low stocking density," "pasture-raised," "grass-fed," "old-fashioned," "humanely raised," etc. In poultry-keeping, "free range" is widely confused with yarding, which means keeping poultry in fenced yards. Yarding, as well as floorless portable chicken pens ("chicken tractors") may have some of the benefits of free-range livestock but, in reality, the methods have little in common with the free-range method.

A behavioral definition of free range is perhaps the most useful: "chickens kept with a fence that restricts their movements very little." This has practical implications. For example, according to Jull, "The most effective measure of preventing cannibalism seems to be to give the birds good grass range."[5] Debeaking was invented to prevent cannibalism for birds not on free range, and the need for debeaking can be seen as a litmus test for whether the chickens' environment is sufficiently "free-range-like."

Free range meat chickens seek shade on a U.S. farm

The U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) requires that chickens raised for their meat have access to the outside in order to receive the free-range certification. There is no requirement for access to pasture, and there may be access to only dirt or gravel . Free-range chicken eggs, however, have no legal definition in the United States. Likewise, free-range egg producers have no common standard on what the term means. Many egg farmers sell their eggs as free range merely because their cages are two or three inches above average size, or because there is a window in the shed.

The USDA has no specific definition for "free-range" beef, pork, and other non-poultry products. All USDA definitions of "free-range" refer specifically to poultry.[6] No other criteria-such as the size of the range or the amount of space given to each animal-are required before beef, lamb, and pork can be called "free-range". Claims and labeling using "free range" are therefore unregulated. The USDA relies "upon producer testimonials to support the accuracy of these claims."

In a December 30, 2002 Federal Register notice and request for comments (67 Fed. Reg. 79552), USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service proposed "minimum requirements for livestock and meat industry production/marketing claims" [7]. Many industry claim categories are included in the notice, including breed claims, antibiotic claims, and grain fed claims. "Free Range, Free Roaming, or Pasture Raised" would be defined as "livestock that have had continuous and unconfined access to pasture throughout their life cycle" with an exception for swine ("continuous access to pasture for at least 80% of their production cycle"). This proposed rulemaking is still in play. In a May 12, 2006 Federal Register notice (71 Fed. Reg. 27662), the agency presented a summary and its responses to comments received in the 2002 notice, but only for the category "grass (forage) fed" which the agency stated was to be a category separate from "free range." [8] Comments received for other categories, including "free range," are to be published in future Federal Register editions.

The broadness of "free range" in the U.S. has caused some people to look for alternative terms. "Pastured poultry" is a term promoted by farmer/author Joel Salatin for broiler chickens raised on grass pasture for all of their lives except for the initial brooding period. The Pastured Poultry concept is promoted by the American Pastured Poultry Producers' Association (APPPA) [9], an organization of farmers raising their poultry using Salatin's principles.

Alternative terminology can also be used to make high-density confinement sound more palatable. For example: cage-free, free-running, free-roaming, naturally nested, etc. are used as an alternative to the technical term, high-density floor confinement. Whether high-density floor confinement is more humane than high-density cage confinement is arguable, but in any event, high-density confinement (of whatever type) is the antithesis of free range.

European Union

A free range chicken flock

The European Union regulates marketing standards for egg farming which specifies the following (cumulative) minimum conditions for the free-range method:

  • hens have continuous daytime access to open-air runs, except in the case of temporary restrictions imposed by veterinary authorities,
  • the open-air runs to which hens have access is mainly covered with vegetation and not used for other purposes except for orchards, woodland and livestock grazing if the latter is authorised by the competent authorities,
  • the open-air runs must at least satisfy the conditions specified in Article 4(1)(3)(b)(ii) of Directive 1999/74/EC whereby the maximum stocking density is not greater than 2500 hens per hectare of ground available to the hens or one hen per 4m2 at all times and the runs are not extending beyond a radius of 150 m from the nearest pophole of the building; an extension of up to 350 m from the nearest pophole of the building is permissible provided that a sufficient number of shelters and drinking troughs within the meaning of that provision are evenly distributed throughout the whole open-air run with at least four shelters per hectare.[10]

Otherwise, egg farming in EU is classified into 4 categories: Organic (ecological), Free Range, Barn, and Cages.[11]) The mandatory labelling on the egg shells attributes a number (which is the first digit on the label) to each of these categories: 0 for Organic, 1 for Free Range, 2 for Barn and 3 for Cages.[12]

There are EU regulations about what free-range means for laying hens and broilers (meat chickens) as indicated above. However, there are no EU regulations for free-range pork, so pigs could be indoors for some of their lives. In order to be classified as free-range, animals must have access to the outdoors for at least part of their lives.[13]


United Kingdom

Free-range pregnant sows are kept in groups and are often provided with straw for bedding, rooting and chewing. Around 40% of UK sows are kept free-range outdoors and farrow in huts on their range. [14]

Egg laying hens Cage-free egg production includes barn, free-range and organic systems. In the UK, free-range systems are the most popular of the non-cage alternatives, accounting for around 28% of all eggs, compared to 4% in barns and 6% organic. In free-range systems, hens are housed to a similar standard as the barn or aviary. [15]

Turkeys Free-range turkeys have continuous access to an outdoor range during the daytime. The range should be largely covered in vegetation and allow more space. Access to fresh air and daylight means better eye and respiratory health. The turkeys are able to exercise and exhibit natural behaviour resulting in stronger, healthier legs. Free-range systems often use slower-growing breeds of turkey. [16]

See also



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