|Q. Professor, what is Free Range ?
A. To we Chickizens1, especially the Laying Breeds (like my ladies) Free Range means getting up in the morning as soon as we can see (much earlier than you Humans) and being able to get into the grass and weeds and start ambushing yummy bugs that are still groggy with dew. That really gets our juices going! And then a little hanky-panky...uh.. But back to your question.
“Free Range” means different things to various Humans and there are, as yet, no standards in the United States I am aware of, although the Great Blue Chicken, (Prof. Sullenberger) assures me they are “just around the corner”! The British have some standards that are quite good if a little funky in some respects. See: Freedom Food
In the United States several ideas exist concerning free range. They include everything from totally enclosed indoor spaces, which in the past were called “Floor Houses”, meaning we Chickizens weren’t kept in cages, to too small outdoor pens with hard packed dirt and, uh, ‘stuff’- uhh - Used Oats!’ covering the ground, to actual pastures we can run in, find green plants, bugs, worms and seeds - much as our Wild Ancestors did thousands of years ago. (In spite of what you Humans call “Domestication”, we are still hunter-gatherers, and we are not vegetarians!.)
I assure you Human producers who have too many Chickizens in a small pen with bare dirt and used oats do not have “free range” as far as I’m concerned! What they do have is bigger cages than those factory farms some Humans are always cackling about.
Big Deal. Too many Chickizens in too little space, no matter if it gets sunlight or not, isn’t “free range” and shouldn’t be called that! At best it’s BIG cage that gets sunlight - not really much different from a small CAGE that doesn’t.
1. Chickizen - a chicken citizen; an individual member (citizen) of a flock.
Q. Professor, I try to consider the needs of chickens I keep; are there are Space allowances I should be making?
A. EXCELLENT Question! The short answer is: Yes, indeed - there are space requirements for a Group of Chickizens (flock: to Humans).
Unfortunately for Chickens, our space requirements often conflict with your “economics”.
The Great Blue Chicken has studied this matter extensively and after much experiment (and consultation with me, and the Board of Supervisors) has come to some conclusions / compromises which, while we’re not entirely happy, we can live with - especially if you Humans will provide some amenities we wouldn’t need if we were only producing enough eggs to reproduce our kind. (which, afterall, is why we lay eggs in the first place!)
1. In an enclosed house where we have to be inside all the time, Chickizens need 6-8 sq. ft. of floor space per chicken and deep litter on the floor (talking about 6 or 8 - even 10 inches here - a few sprigs of straw thrown around doesn't cut it.) IF we can get out into a yard or pasture, we can “get by” with 4 sq.ft. per chicken. Any less than this (in many cases even this) many Chickizens will go “confined crazy”, start fighting with and pecking other Chickizens much to the detriment of reproduction, feed consumption, general health and our all so important rather complex, Social Order!
This is little different from what happens with Humans! Think what happens when 36 Humans are in an elevator that suddenly stops between the 53rd and 54th floors! Contrast that with 3 Humans on the same elevator stuck between floors. Big Difference. All Same with Chickens. Except possibly, we, being considerably more social than Humans, could probably tolerate twice as many individuals given equivelent ratios of space per being.
2. Yards, Pens,Pastures: “Heaven” to we egg producing Chickizens is 250-300 of us to a full acre of lush pasture with shade trees around it's borders! The Freedom Food Standards say 250 - and the Great Blue Chicken’s experimental data say 300 will work, but 250 is better and 200 is better still.
IF I had a say, I’d opt for 180-200 to the acre, but I can live with the 300 if I have too.
UNDERSTAND, Human, I’m talking about at least 145.2 square feet of roaming area per Chickizen! That gives us plenty of space to escape from each other when necessary and we’re not as likely to kill off the vegetation by overgrazing or nitrogen build-up especially if we're not there more than a month or so before we move to a new pasture.
3.Pens/cages - smaller than an acre, or due to population density providing less than 145.2 sq.ft./bird: For short periods - a day or two, we can do “O.K.” with 10-12 sq.ft./Chickizen. We’d rather not. 18-20-22 sq. ft./ Chickizen is much better for our social life and your production numbers.
However, if you feed us well (which includes animal protien - we ARE NOT vegetarians), provide Deep, Firable, Litter (6-8 inches or more) on the floor of the pen and in the house, keep the ratio of Males to Females at 1:15 or greater, and provide PLENTY of nest boxes and places to roost, (not on top of the nest boxes- Please!) production won’t suffer a great deal and most hens will be only a little beaten up.
Q. Professor, What are the “Freedom Food Standards” you cluck about?
A. The British Freedom Food Standards are an official program adopted by the RSPCA (Royal Society (for) Prevention (of) Cruelty (to) Animals) which attempts to create a more “natural” method of raising food animals. This is a quite laudable goal, and 95 years ago well before the "industrial farm", wouldn't have even been necessary! In those days "Livestock Farmers" were truly Husbandmen. (Husbandpersons if you prefer.) In any event they were "in tune" with their livestock. The basic goals of the Freedom Food Standards, for all farm animals are:
Freedom from fear and distress.
Freedom from pain, injury and disease.
Freedome from hunger and thirst.
Freedom from discomfort.
Freedom to express normal behaviour.
The actual Free Range Poultry Housing Standards, are:
1. Stocking should not exceed 250 birds per acre. (The British acre and the American acre are the same size: 43,560 sq.ft.; 250 birds =174.2 sq.ft./bird)
2. Pasture is rested (meaning no birds) 1 year out of three - UNLESS “densities are low enough to prevent damage (to pasture) and avoid disease build up.” (unfortunately, "low enough" is not defined. One assumes it's in the order of 75-100 birds/acre, depending on the geography and the available vegetation.)
3. Birds/Colonies/Flocks should be provided with protection from predators and have access to shelter. Houses should provide sufficient space for them to move around freely, and there should be litter to scratch in. (Note: again they don’t say what "sufficient space ...to move...freely"..is. Many operations consider 1 to 1-1/2 sq.ft./bird- "sufficient".)
4. Recommended Colony (flock) sizes
100 laying or 200 fattening (broiler) birds per housing group
5. Permitted Colony sizes
500 birds per housing group
Housing should be disinfected between batches with idoform, steam, blow torch or lime depending on the construction of the house
Litter must be regularly replenished and kept in a dry and friable condition
6. Standards relating specifically to Laying Birds
Artificial lighting must not prolong the day length beyond 16 hours
6A. Recommended Housing
Housing designed for a maximum of 15kg (33 lbs. live weight of birds)/sq M (10.76 sq.ft.) of floor area. (Which for Standard Leghorns at 4 lb./bird, means 1.34 sq.ft./bird - too darn little in my book!)
20cm (7.87in) perch space per bird
1 nest space per 5 birds
6B. Permitted Housing:
Fixed houses may have slatted floor with collection area for droppings and/or solid floor with litter Houses moved twice a week may have slatted floors with no droppings boards Housing designed for a maximum of 25kg (55 lbs.) live weight of birds)/sq M (10.76 sq.ft.) of floor area 15cm (5.9 in.) perch space per bird 1 nest box per 8 birds they must be supplemented with additional shelter against wind and rain.
Housing densities in excess of 25kg (55 lbs.) live weight of birds) or 12 birds per sqM floor area