The reason free-range chicken tastes so good is they are raised outside on pasture rather than in crowded poultry houses. They have constant access to a natural diet and enjoy plenty of fresh air and sunshine. It does not use artificial growth promotants; does not feed meat or bone meal; and does not use antibiotics.
Alternative poultry production involves specialty systems such as a cagefree environment or other access to the outdoors as alternatives to conventional poultry housing and cages. Alternative poultry production may be large-scale but is often small-scale and integrated into a diversified farm. Alternative poultry production is an important part of sustainable agriculture to boost farm income while protecting the environment and addressing consumer concerns.
Outdoor access is an important feature of most alternative poultry production and allows the birds to express natural behaviors such as foraging and dustbathing. It allows “extensive” production in which the birds have access to ample space, sunlight, and fresh air – a healthy environment that reduces stress. The birds have access to comfortable indoor housing as well as the outdoors and can choose an environment, to maximize welfare. “Extensive production” is in contrast to “intensive production,” where birds are permanently housed at a high stocking density.
Free-range systems vary widely, from large fixed houses with yards to small portable houses that are moved regularly. The main free-range production systems are:
- Fixed houses
- Portable houses
- Pasture pens
- Integrated systems
Advantages to a fixed house include the relative ease to provide electricity to power automated equipment. The house can also be large in size because it is not moved. Fixed houses open to yards to provide outdoor access, and birds are usually closed in the house at night. This type of production is done by most large free-range poultry companies in the U.S. and is sometimes called “semi-intensive.” On a small scale, it is the familiar chicken coop and yard.
A major disadvantage of this system is that unless the birds are rotated from one yard to another, access to the same ground is continual. When birds stay on the same ground, they damage the vegetation and turn the yard into dirt or mud. Turf damage may be especially bad right around the house, and birds may track mud into the house and dirty the eggs. Excessive pathogens and nutrients can build up in the yard, contributing to disease and pollution.
Pasture pens are small floorless pens that are moved daily, usually by hand, to fresh pasture. These inexpensive shelters are set in a pasture, on a lawn, or in a garden. They are a favorite of small-scale producers due to their low cost and flexibility.
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