The definition of free-range chickens

The term “free range” brings up images of chickens scratching, eating bugs, and roaming freely in an open field rather than being confined inside. Free ranging your flock is a balancing act and there are pros and cons of the practice.

Jim Hermes is a retired extension poultry specialist at Oregon State University. He says the USDA has a legal definition of free range.

"All it says is they have access to outside. It doesn’t mean they go outside it means they have access," explains Hermes. "So, in essence, if you have a chicken house with a door where the birds could go outside if they so choose, then by definition they are free range."

Many smaller farms give their chickens the opportunity to go outside of the coop to explore and freely exhibit their natural behaviors. They’re brought inside at night.

Hermes says the commercial industry had chickens outside almost exclusively into the 1950’s. But over the last 40-years, producers realized that productivity, bird safety and health was improved if they were kept inside. They were protected from environmental hazards such as disease organisms and predators.

It’s just been in recent years that the pendulum is swinging again to let chickens go out into nature. The primary reason for that is behavioral issues.

"When they’re enclosed in cages or in buildings, some of their natural behaviors, dusting behavior, scratching, things of that nature which are typical normal things that chickens do are really difficult to accomplish when they’re in a cage or on litter floors," he says. "As far as that is concerned, their behavioral welfare is much improved being outside."