What is "Pastured Poultry?"
The terms "free-range poultry" and "pastured poultry" are
commonly used among both consumers and producers of eggs and poultry
meat. But these terms carry different connotations depending on who is
doing the talking and who is doing the listening. With the exception of
the term "free-range", there are no legal definitions of any term
relating to the methods of rearing of poultry in the United States. This
has resulted in the creation of numerous terms and subsets of terms that
have brought confusion to the producer, the marketer and the consumer of
Problems with the term "Free Range."
The USDA definition of "free-range" is rather vague. In order
to label their meat and poultry "free-range or free-roaming", "Producers
must demonstrate to the Agency that the poultry has been allowed access
to the outside." (1)
No mention of vegetation (pasture) is made. Poultry producers
themselves seem to have no common standards on what the term means.
Some producers interpret "access to the outside" as a small pop-door
(chicken door) on an end-wall of a 100 ft. long shed filled with
un-caged birds moving about freely on a litter-covered floor. Others
feel they are compliant with the spirit of free-range if their birds are
outside in the fresh air and sunshine; even if their "range" is bare
When it comes to the
consumer's perception of "free-range", arguably the vision that
"free-range" most often conjures is of an un-fenced bird happily hunting
and pecking in the grass. Because of the wholesomeness associated with
the term "organic", many consumers take for granted that all certified
organic poultry raised for meat and eggs are raised outside on green
pasture. Sadly, this is not so. The term "free-range" is not even listed
in the NOP (National Organic Program) "terms defined."(6)
They do give
guidelines that say: "All organically raised animals must have access to
So when someone purchases poultry products labeled "free range" or
"organic", the birds may never have actually seen the light of day or
green grass its entire life. Technically, they simply have to have a
door out of their confinement, but they don't have to necessarily walk
through that door to meet the requirements.
"Free Range" means "pastured"
fourth edition of the American Heritage College Dictionary (8) defines
"pasture", the noun, as, "A tract of land that supports grass or other
vegetation eaten by domestic grazing animals." "Pastured", the verb, is
defined by The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language,
Fourth Edition as, "To herd (animals) into a pasture to graze."
"Free-range", as defined by The American Heritage® Dictionary of the
English Language, Fourth Edition (9), is an adjective descriptive "Of,
relating to, or produced by animals, especially poultry, that range
freely for food, rather than being confined in an enclosure: (as in)
Some poultry growers, in keeping with the spirit of the definition above,
actually keep their birds outside (as the season and daylight hours
permit), utilizing a movable or stationary house for shelter and keeping
the birds on fresh-growing palatable vegetation.
As a subset of "free-range", terms such as "day-range" and
"net-range" are also currently being used by poultry producers. Andy Lee
coined the term "day-range", which is interchangeable with "net-range".
In his book Day Range Poultry (7) he describes the system of using
electrified netting to fence a predator-resistant area around a portable
chicken house. The chickens are locked in the house at night. As the
netting and the housing are portable, the chickens can be on fresh
pasture at all times. Many producers making use of this system use the
terms "free-range" and "day-range" interchangeably.
Another term in
popular usage within
the United States is "pastured poultry". This term is highly associated
with Joel Salatin, author of the popular book, "Pastured Poultry Profits
(5)". Pastured does not seem to be a term applied to poultry outside of
North America but in the U.S., the term as used among poultry producers
generally conveys the use of Salatin's methods. Floorless pens of 10 X
12 X 2 foot high are moved (once or twice daily) around a green pasture.
The birds have access to fresh air, grass and insects but are also
protected from predators. Many producers have modified the pen size and
configuration to better suit their own needs, but the basic method
involved in raising "pastured poultry" remains.
A Functional Definition of "Pastured Poultry"
Because of the loose definition of "free range,"
we prefer to use the term "pastured poultry." This would include those
growers using the "Salatin type" of moveable pens, or other types such
as "day range." So our definition would be: "Birds
are kept outside (as the season and daylight hours permit), utilizing a
movable or stationary house for shelter, and they have constant access
to fresh-growing palatable vegetation." Pastured Poultry farmers
generally have "seasons" when they raise their poultry, depending on
where they live in the US. Growers in the north do not raise birds in
the winter months when the ground is covered with snow, and growers in
the Deep South typically do not raise birds in the heat of the summer
when mortality rates are high.
Free Range Definitions Outside of the US
In Europe, the term
'free-range" has been more thoroughly defined; however it still carries
a variety of meanings. In the ATTRA publication Sustainable Poultry:
Production Overview (3) NCAT Agriculture Specialist Anne Fanatico
describes a system known as "yarding" whereby chickens are allowed to
range during the day and return to a stationary house at night. The
ranging area may either be fenced or unfenced. Fanatico states:
In Europe, yarding is common, but stocking
density recommendations differ in the various certification programs.
The European Union requirements for "free-range" poultry limit stock
density to 1,000 hens per hectare (400 per acre). A U.K. organic program
called the Soil Association requires fewer birds: no more than 625 hens
per hectare (250 per acre). Both programs require that the land be
largely covered with vegetation.
Fanatico goes on to
observe that in the French Label Rouge certification program
200 birds per acre are permitted and that some participants increase the
space. In general, participants in the program use yarding, with the
area being sometimes unfenced.
In The European Union
yarding is allowed on a large scale. It is called "semi-intensive" and,
in U.S. terms, the definition allows for 1600 birds per acre. Fanatico
notes, "Even the final rule of the USDA National Organic Program permits
this type of industrial production system (3)". In Europe and abroad,
chickens raised under this system of yarding are known as free-range.
Producers of free-range
eggs in Australia formed an association to define enforceable standards
which apply to the use of the interchangeable terms "free-range" "open
range" or "range" egg. A person may face prosecution for selling eggs as
"free-range" which were not produced according to these guidelines.
Among the standards are the items listed below (4):
access to open-air runs during daylight hours.
be protected from predators at all times.
to which hens have access is mainly covered with palatable
vegetation and has some shade provided.
essential to have vegetation cover growing on the land where the
hens are permitted to range.
stocking rate of the runs does not exceed 1.5 birds per 10 square
metres, that is, 1500 hens per hectare (600 hens per acre).
From the USDA site on meat and poultry labeling:
(2) From the USDA
website on the National Organic Program:
The Free Range Egg Producers Association of Australia standards:
(5) Salatin, Joel.
Pastured Poultry Profits copyright 1993 by Joel Salatin, Second printing
2004, Third printing 1996, Polyface, Inc., Swoope, Virginia, 334 p.
(6) NOP terms
(7) Lee, Andy and
Patricia Foreman. Day Range Poultry, 2002. Good Earth Publications,
Buena Vista, Virginia, 308 p.
(8) The American
Heritage College Dictionary, Fourth Edition copyright 2004, 2002
Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.)
(9) The American
Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition copyright
©2000 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Updated in 2003, Published by
Houghton Mifflin Company, All rights reserved.