Reflections on “Free Range”

For the past year, our hens have truly ranged freely on our land.  In the morning we open the door to the coop and leave the gate of the run wide open.  Without much hesitation, the hens hop out of the coop and exit the run, beginning a day of adventurous scavenging and exploration.  But recently, while the hens were ranging around in the woods about 50 feet from our house in the middle of the day (while we were outside!) we heard a… commotion.  All but one of our hens came sprinting and panting to the house.  My heart froze when I noticed a buff orpington was missing her tail feathers.  I walked around in the woods for a few minutes and then I found the feathers of one of our plymouth barred rocks scattered in a few circles.  Predators. 

I’ve always been aware of the risk of predation on our flock.  The previous owners of our house, who also raised chickens, had made sure the run was FULLY enclosed, complete with 1 foot of chicken wire extending out from the bottom all the way around, buried underground, and the top of the run fully covered with chicken wire.  I’ve personally spotted foxes, coyotes, hawks, owls, and even minks on and around our land.

Red Fox Licking Chops, watching chickens

But for whatever reason, I had faith in the safety of our hens.  We have a dog who leaves her scent around, all of our neighbors have dogs.  I thought that was enough.

The definition of “free range” is actually tough to get  handle on, as I’ve learned.  If we’re being quite literal, the only true definition of free range would be animals that have no fencing and can go wherever they want.  But with property lines to respect and the newly obvious threat of predators, this seems a bit… risky.

And the USDA’s definition is surprisingly slack on how strict “free range” has to be.  Here’s a summary of the regulations:

In the United States, USDA free range regulations currently apply only to poultry and indicate that the animal has been allowed access to the outside. The USDA regulations do not specify the quality or size of the outside range nor the duration of time an animal must have access to the outside. (source)

I think, officially, the USDA handles free range approval on a case-by-case basis, so it might not mean that all eggs and meat labeled “free range” are just following the bare minimum.  The USDA works very hard to provide information and safety to the consumer, but they also have other factors to consider, including how dramatic changes in regulations would affect the economics of agriculture.  There are trade offs with this stuff.  This is just another reason to avoid blind trust in the USDA regulations and labeling laws.  If you really care about organic or free range or any other labels, we believe it is a must to know your farmer and their practices personally.

chickens-394025_1280

With our newly learned lesson, we have our hens in their run for now, gate closed.  I am not happy to do this, but until we develop better predator protection it is for the good of the flock.  Surely it is humane to trade unrestricted ranging freedom in exchange for not being brutally attacked and eaten.

But are they still free ranging?  They have access to the outdoors all day, only to be closed up in their coop at night, where they roost and sleep anyways.  They have about 20 square feet per chicken in the run, so I think that is a good amount of space.  They have easy access to sun, shade, and bugs.  There isn’t much vegetation in there, although to be fair that is their fault, having demolished it within the first few weeks of living there as pullets.

So, free range or not?  Even with the freedoms they have in the run, I really don’t think it is good enough.  They are only partially free, which does not feel free enough.

We aim to correct this in the coming weeks by expanding their run and rolling out a massive fencing project around our land to keep the chickens from wandering into the woods too much and to make it harder for the predators to sneak in.

Even though it is difficult, in the end I’m happy the loss was to a predator and not to a disease or other issue that comes from bad or restrictive poultry management.  The chicken was doing what it loved, wandering in the forest with her sisters, digging in the leaves for bugs, feeling the fresh air on its feathers.  We’ve told our daughter the barred rock has returned to the earth.  Wild animals need to eat too, as they are also a part of this beautiful world we all share.

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