Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Home, Home on the Range

“Free-range chickens” 

Somehow, this gives the mental picture of hens out on the open prairie, foraging through the tall grass in some sort of chicken paradise, laying eggs in secluded little nests and raising their chicks under the bright blue skies.

…and customers feel duped, ripped off and sometimes angry when they find out that is NOT what is guaranteed (or specifically implied) by the description.

Believe me, they’ve told me.


That's not what Free-range means! 

The wild and free, life in the open air ain't all it's cracked up to be for the chickens, either. And, personally, I'm not a big fan of Free-range.  At least not in the truest sense of the word...the way so many folks seem to understand it.

Before anyone calls for my lynching or tells me I don’t know what I’m talking about…hear me out.
while we don't use this model anymore
this is an example of free-range hens
(see the red hens on either side of the pen TRULY free-ranging?
they became something's supper shortly after the photo)

Chickens need some sort of protection and confinement. (meaning housing and fencing) Mostly for their own protection. So, free-range (meaning NO type of confinement) isn't the chicken paradise that many envision.

Predation is a very real problem. All sorts of critters…foxes, coyotes, neighborhood dogs, hawks…even ‘possums are all out there looking for supper. Carnivores need meat to survive. Chickens, being flightless, (and not the brightest of birds) are easy prey.

Chickens are indeed prey animals.  Which means they have no natural defenses against those other animals in the food chain, the meat eaters. Without plenty of protection, chickens will become supper for something out there…almost guaranteed.  Occasionally, this happens even with protection. (Our neighbor had a fox walk inSIDE his door-less henhouse and quite methodically eat every single hen over the course of a few days!)

Years ago, we used a very "open-air/free-range" system.  There was a hut (with boxes for egg laying) surrounded by electrified netting. The whole thing could be relocated fairly easily when the chickens needed fresh grazing.  Similar methods are used elsewhere in the world of pastured chickens.

But...I was doing chores on a foggy Saturday morning (the Boss was gone to Market) when I discovered carnage in the chicken pen. Serious carnage.  Something had massacred a great number of hens.  And, I don’t use the word massacre lightly.  There were decapitated chickens all over the place. I had to get a wheelbarrow to clean up the half-eaten, headless birds.  Later, I found the heads in another part of the enclosure. It takes a lot to gross me out…but, that did it. 

The remaining hens were scattered and frightened, affecting egg production for some time. Despite intense investigation, we never did figure out what caused the mayhem.  It was gross and disgusting and more than a little unnerving. Definitely NOT the way to start the day.

The experience sent us scurrying to find a better, safer model…one that would close securely at night. The Boss devised, designed, scavenged and built.  When he was finished we had a portable henhouse that was safe and portable. No more worries about predators!

Not to put too fine a point on the predation problem…but, as I began typing this, the dogs were pitching a fit at the gate at the top of the lane.  I walked down the drive to see this. 

A fox in the neighbor’s field.

There is an active den on another neighbor’s property and we often hear the vixen calling in the night. That's more than a little creepy, too. THIS link details one of my forays into the night and includes a video link to fox calls.

Free-range hens (in the very literal sense of the word)  simply cannot survive here on the hill. (or anywhere else indefinitely)

Not only do we have the pressure of predation, then there are the elements.

this poor thing got left outside in the snow

The hens need some sort of protection from the freezing cold and the blistering heat. There is also some concern over parasites and disease carried by wild birds and other environmental issues.  But, that's a discussion for another time.

By definition, “free-range” really doesn't mean wild and free like most folks imagine.  It simply means that the hens have access to the outdoors.  Here is the definition of free-range  from the USDA.

Free-range. This label indicates that the flock was provided shelter in a building, room, or area with unlimited access to food, fresh water, and continuous access to the outdoors during their production cycle. The outdoor area may or may not be fenced and/or covered with netting-like material. This label is regulated by the USDA. 
 Check the USDA here.  

AND, it really doesn’t mean they and (or should) wander freely through the countryside.  Not only would they risk becoming supper for some predator, their eggs can be virtually impossible to find.
hens in henhouse

Hens are protective of their eggs and hide them quite well.  Hunting for eggs can be somewhat fun when you have a small flock in a very small area, or if you have young children, but not so much when you have a large number of birds (or wide, open spaces) and many other farm chores.

the hens seek out the dark nestboxes in order to feel safe laying their eggs

Hens instinctively look for a dark, safe place to lay their eggs.  By providing nestboxes inside the henhouse, we work with the hens’ natural tendencies and keep the eggs safe and clean and the Boss has easy access for daily egg gathering. (nothing worse than an old egg!) The nestboxes have this handy little “roll-out” feature which means once the egg is laid it rolls into a little collection cup.  Again, this keeps the egg clean and safe.  Yes, I did say safe. Did you know some hens will eat eggs?  Their own eggs? (once a hen becomes an “egg-eater”, there is no hope for rehabilitation and she needs to go in the stewpot…but, I digress)

With plenty of access to the outdoors, and protection from the elements and the predators, our hens’ needs have been more than adequately supplied.  That is the definition of free-range.

cleaning up the garden

The hens thrive in this environment and they show their “appreciation” with plenty of eggs!

Lessons Learned:
Everyone loves a good chicken dinner.  Especially predators!

The hens’ safety and welfare are our biggest concern. 

Animals produce better when their basic needs have been met adequately.

I am beginning to repeat myself a fair bit, here's a link to a piece from 2012 about egg labels. Read this.

The Ag blogging challenge is still going strong.  Check it out!


  1. Hi Barbara,
    Read the title and had immediate mental image of chickens kicking back around a campfire, strumming guitars.

    1. HAHA! At least that would make it somewhat amusing when we have to go out every night and convince a few of them they really do NOT want to camp out when it's 12*!