Is It Free-Range or Pasture-Raised?

Reader Contribution by Mike Badger
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One of my routine screening questions when a person approaches the APPPA booth at a trade show or calls the office is, “Are you raising poultry on pasture now?” Many times, I get an affirmative response, but the person substitutes free-range for pasture.

What Does ‘Free-Range’ Mean?

I know you may not see the problem. Who can argue with free-range? But I’m not a member of the American Free-range Poultry Association. And there’s good reason for that. The mainstream implementation of free-range is anything but ideal, and it typically violates the visual of a flock of chickens foraging across an open range. It short, it has about as much meaning as the “natural” label.

Yes, I’m talking about free-range CAFO chickens and turkeys, and it’s a real problem that the confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) get away with labeling their products as free-range with nothing more than access to the outside.  There is no mandate to make the birds go outside.

Since becoming APPPA’s mouth piece, I’ve made the pasture-raised difference one of my key educational issues. Like most obfuscated issues in food, this starts with marketing. The marketing problem of pasture-raised versus free-range is a very simple one, and people who produce poultry and people who eat poultry should do well to understand the nuances.

Free-range is a USDA label which basically means the birds have access to the outdoors and consequently they aren’t raised in cages. That’s a broad definition and it’s abused by the large poultry integrators who cater to consumer intent with a government sanctioned production loop hole. Free-range implies a bird on range or pasture, but it’s not actually required.

In some cases, a CAFO organic broiler might not get access to the outdoors until they are six weeks old. That’s move out day for most of those young meat birds.

For those of us who have raised meat birds, especially Cornish Cross, we know that the longer we wait to introduce them to pasture, the less likely they are to venture into the grass, let alone graze. A typical pastured poultry farmer will have a meat bird on pasture between two and four weeks, where it lives and forages the majority of its life on fresh, green grass, giving life to the free-range ideal.

Are Free-Range or Pastured Poultry More Nutritious?

For the broiler nutritional study APPPA conducted in 2013, I sampled a non-organic free-range CAFO broiler along with another free-range organic CAFO broiler for some comparative numbers. There were several key differences compared to the pastured samples. The pastured samples showed elevated levels of vitamins D and E, whereas the free-range samples were negligible. Depending on the feed type, the pastured raised samples had an omega 6:3 ration of 3:1 (non-soy feed) or 8:1 (soy feed) compared to 11:1 for the two free-range CAFO samples I purchased for the test. Vitamins D and E and the omega profiles are a few of the often-cited differences in grass-based production systems.

This is part of the story we tell about our products, and it’s the type of things that sets our meat and eggs apart from the status quo. People can quibble about what the differences mean, but they can’t quibble with the repeated clinical demonstrations that pasture-raised poultry has unique qualities.

Marketing Pastured as Free-Range

What about pastured poultry producers who market their products as free-range?

Sadly, this is a reality that many producers must realize. I’ve heard many stories from pastured poultry producers who have had problems selling pasture-raised in the past because their customers wanted free-range. The romantic visual of chickens or turkeys free ranging in a pastoral field, unencumbered by any boundary, gets in the way of making informed decisions.

Producers need to draw a line and ask themselves the tough question, which goes something like this. “If I raise a superior product on pasture using a managed rotation that benefits the poultry, the land, and the customers, then why market that superiority using the same terms found in a commodity CAFO chicken?”

Thankfully, this marketing trend is changing, and consumers are asking for pastured poultry by name with an increasing frequency. Consumers are wising up to the difference, and I field an increasing number of questions throughout the year from people who turn to APPPA’s members in search of pasture-raised chickens, eggs, turkeys, and more.

Producing Pastured Poultry is More Than Chicken

Going through the expense and labor of producing small flocks on pasture demands a different descriptor than the watered down free-range reality. Joel Salatin gave us that label in the 1990’s. It’s called pastured poultry and it embodies the difference between the CAFO chicken and the local pasture-raised kind.

I typically boil pasture-raised down to a very simple idea. The birds are given fresh, green grass as part of a managed rotation as seasonally appropriate. The nice thing about pastured poultry is that there is no central body defining what pastured poultry is and there’s no conventional poultry integrators claiming to produce broilers, eggs, turkey, or anything else on pasture. This is a point of difference that should be marketed.

The lack of a centralized, and therefore controlled, definition is that it inspires innovation. That innovation creates a number of production models and housing methods that can be adapted to meet the circumstances of breeds, farms, and geographies.

Free-Range is Not Manageable, in Most Cases

Unless you’re rotating a free-range flock of hens through 50 acres or more for pasture cleaning, I’d argue that there is nothing manageable about turning out a flock to run through the barnyard at-will. The 50 acres is a number borrowed from Joel. I can say with certainty that free ranging is not suited for a couple of acres.

I’ve tried free ranging a few chickens by turning them loose to run the farm and neighborhood. They’d return to the barn to roost at night. The result was neighbor complaints, poop everywhere, scratched up flower beds (or gardens), holes where grass used to be, disappearing hens, and an endless list of potential downsides that appeared on a regular basis.

The free-for-all-free-range method was not manageable. My land recognized no benefits from controlled grazing; the birds overgrazed their favorite areas which eventually denuded those areas, and I still had a coop that needed purchased bedding and cleaning. And who knows if I ever got all my eggs.

One year, I recall we lost a Speckled Sussex only to have her reappear two weeks later looking like she escaped a fox’s mouth. My only guess was that she laid a clutch of eggs somewhere on the perimeter of a neighbor’s property and then went broody.

Advice to Customers

I’ve long held the position that people who seek free-range poultry and eggs are really seeking pasture-raised. That’s my belief, and I’m sticking to it.

The best way to ensure you get what you want is to shop someplace where you can ask the farmer questions because relying on a label alone to authenticate your purchase can be a deceiving game. I’d recommend you look for pastured poultry farmers in your community. Pastured poultry will live a majority of its life on pasture and will be rotated to fresh green grass in a managed (i.e., deliberate) way that benefits the bird, the land, and the eater.

Ask for pasture-raised.

Mike Badger is the director forAmerican Pastured Poultry Producers Association (APPPA), leading the organization’s mission as a nonprofit educational and networking organization dedicated to encouraging the production, processing, and marketing of poultry raised on pasture.