You can do an Internet search of “cage-free” and “free-range” eggs or chickens and see that there really aren’t a whole lot of legal requirements to claim those titles.
"Free Range" Chickens at a Factory Farm
“Free range” at the Flying T means that as soon as our chicks and ducklings are safely able to live in the outdoors, we let them roam the farm.
Rhode Island Red Free-Ranging at the Flying T
Most of the chickens return to the coop at night to roost, and the ducks to the barn (some chickens may choose to hang out with the ducks in the barn, especially Henny Penny, aka “Chuck the Chicken Duck”), but otherwise they are out foraging for insects, bugs, spiders, worms, seeds, and plants during the majority of the day. We don’t use pens or cages except in special circumstances (in order to quarantine new or young birds for a short time to ensure biosecurity, or to separate an injured bird to keep it from getting pecked, for instance).
Chickens hanging out on a woodpile at the Flying T
Mocha foraging with her flock at the Flying T
This does pose some risks (like predators) and costs. We can only select breeds that are suitable for free-ranging. Many “production” strains have many of their natural free-ranging, brooding, self-preservation, and other habits bred out of them so that they spend as much energy as possible either into growing meat on their bones or eggs to lay. We believe the benefits, however, are worth it.
Free-range eggs have up to 4-6 times the Vitamin D, 1⁄3 less cholesterol, 1⁄4 less saturated fat, 2⁄3 more vitamin A, 2 times more omega-3 fatty acids, 3 times more vitamin E, and 7 times more beta carotene than factory-raised eggs. (article)
Free-range ducks and chickens are miracle-workers when it comes to controlling ticks, barnyard flies, grasshoppers, and other pests. This reduces the need for pesticides, which is not only better for all the animals on the farm… it’s healthier and better for us as well! (citation and another).
Free-range birds are healthier than factory birds, and their meat has a firmer and more flavorful nature, and encourages us to return to more traditional harvesting, preparation, and cooking methods (read this article for good information and ideas).
While factory birds are selectively bred to discourage broodiness (a female bird’s instinct to nest, incubate, and raise her own young) because a broody hen doesn’t lay eggs, our breeding plan actually encourages broodiness, allowing us to sustain the flock.
A broody free-range hen will raise her own chicks/ducklings. If you’ve ever raised either (we have… and actually, we are doing it again), you know it’s a lot of work and attention that could get spent elsewhere. Our hope is that with our breeding plan, this is the last batch we have to hand-raise!
Though we offer free-choice supplemental feed (especially in winter), free-range birds require a lot less of this, reducing our costs. And since they don’t spend as much time in their roosts, clean-up is a lot less time-consuming also (instead, they spend a lot of time fertilizing our pastures and lawn).
Free-range birds don’t tend to fight like confined birds, which is why even “cage free” and some “free range” factory birds have the tips of their beaks cut or burnt off. (citation)
Finally, it’s just peaceful and enjoyable to watch birds range over the farm, stopping from time to time to peck at food, or chasing a dragonfly across the pasture.