Free-range eggs have been praised and marketed as being healthier, and as a result, many people seek them out. But how many of us have done the research to find out what exactly passes for free-range eggs? You might be surprised.
What Exactly Is A Free-Range Egg, And Why Should I Seek It Out?
The term “free range” has been allowed on labels by the USDA ’ s Food Safety and Inspection Service  “if the producer demonstrates that the birds were allowed continuous, free access to the outside for over 51 percent of their lives through a normal growing cycle.” It is important to note that the wording is “access to the outside,” not that the animal actually goes outside. This means that if there is a chicken door to the outside of the coop that has access to open air, it can be labeled as “free range,” even if the open-air area has no vegetation. Eggs from chickens that don’t go outside and eat vegetation are no better for you than eggs from industrial factory farms, assuming they are eating the same type of feed in their enclosed building.
My definition of free-range eggs is eggs from chickens that have actually been outside and have access to vegetation, sunshine, and bugs. Whether or not the area is fenced does not matter to me, as long as the enclosed area has vegetation and bugs and the chickens can eat what they would eat in a natural state. Eggs raised in such a way often fall under the term “pastured eggs,” but this term, too, does not have an across-the-board definition. It’s just a little flag to let you know you are on the right track.
Why do I define free-range eggs the way I do? Because it is the diet of the chicken that gives the egg the superior nutritional value. Chickens that eat green vegetation and bugs yield eggs that are naturally higher in beta-carotene, omega 3s, and vitamin E, and lower in cholesterol and saturated fat than eggs that come from industrial factory farms. Diet really does make a difference!
So what is the best way to make sure you are getting free-range eggs, seeing as there is not an easy way to know based on labeling? Know your farmer and his methods, or do it yourself.
How To Raise Free-Range Chickens And Eggs
There are a couple of different ways to raise your chickens to produce eggs with free-range health benefits. You may choose the system that works for your situation; farmers may choose the larger scale options, and many urbanites find they enjoy having a few hens in their backyards (check your zoning before pursuing this) and opt for a smaller scale option.
Truly Free-Range Chickens
Chickens that are truly free ranging are (or should be) given a safe place to roost at night and are let out in the daytime to roam wherever they please. This method can work on a farm with plenty of space to roam, someone home at all times to keep an ear out for them, and maybe even a loyal guard dog that will protect the chickens and not eat them (although good luck with that one). One drawback is that the chickens can sometimes get themselves into trouble, whether with predators, getting into the garden and destroying your crops, or spending the afternoon on your front porch and lawn and making a mess of it. Also, if your chickens are free ranging and you decide you want to run to town, you are not likely to be able to get your flock to go back into the coop in a timely manner, and you risk losing your flock if you leave them unprotected (speaking from experience here—we lost nineteen chickens to free-running dogs when we left the house for less than two hours one time).
Another option is to build a stationary coop that is a good size in proportion to the number of chickens you have, complete with nesting boxes, and have a few different fenced-in areas where you allow the chickens to range during the day. It is a good idea to rotate between these areas, as chickens often scratch and eat everything edible, leaving bare ground. The areas don’t necessarily have to be connected to the coop or each other, though that is most convenient. If you are a patient person and have time in the mornings, you can hold off on feeding the chickens until you let them out (we always offer them food, even when free ranging), and train them to follow you with the food bucket to their enclosed of the area of the day. This is not to say that I guarantee this will work consistently, as chickens often have a mind of their own, but it’s a plausible plan.
In addition, if you don’t have many chickens, you may find it simple enough to string netting or chicken wire over the fenced-in areas. This will allow the sun to still enter freely, but it will keep your chickens from trying to fly away and roost in trees, and it will keep predators like hawks at bay as well. Additional protection from digging predators (like dogs) can be had by digging a deep channel along the perimeter of your enclosure and filling it with concrete. Even if dogs try to dig under the fence, the wall of concrete will stop them.
A third option is a chicken tractor. Chicken tractors consist of a simplified, small-scale coop to safely house the hens at night and for them to lay their eggs in, and a movable, attached area covered with heavy gauge wire to keep predators out. This contraption is called a chicken tractor because it is easily moved around a vegetated area to give the chickens regular access to fresh greens and bugs. Ideally, a chicken tractor can be moved by one person and will allow for easy access to eggs from the outside of the nest box/coop.
A similar setup is to have a portable coop, somewhat similar to a chicken tractor but it can be larger, that can be moved from place to place. Before the chickens are let out, poultry fence set up with an electric fence is arranged in the designated area where the hens can safely free-range. This setup does not protect from hawks, but it will protect from most other predators. If eggs are layed outside of the nest box, they are easy to find in the enclosed area. Just remember to turn the electric fence off before you climb over it to check!
It is important to train your chickens as to where home is and where they should lay their eggs. We provide nest boxes with straw in them when they begin to approach the age where they start laying, somewhere around four to six months of age.
The main method we have used with our chickens has been to keep them in an enclosed chicken coop when they are young, then allow them outside in a fenced-in area for at least a month. During this time of access to outside, they still go inside to lay their eggs in the provided nest boxes. After this time of acclimation, they are allowed out of the fenced-in area and have free range of the property. Most of the time, they either lay their egg before going out for the day or they run back to the pen when it is time to lay. It’s a bit amusing to see a hen hauling herself back to the pen, clearly on a mission, reminiscent of that “gotta go, gotta go, gotta go right now” commercial.
We’ve rarely had a hen lay her eggs out on the property. Those that did were in a very broody state, and we suspected it when they did not return to the coop when we closed it up for the night to keep them safe from predators.
If The Chicken Won’t Cooperate: Hide And Seek
At times, there is a hen that refuses to follow your rules and chooses to lay her eggs outside of the nest box and out on the property. As stated before, it’s usually a very broody hen that will do this.
If your chickens once laid in nest boxes in their coop and you suspect they have started laying elsewhere, the best thing to do would be to keep them in the coop for the day until just before dusk for at least a week, and then let them out. Lengthen the time they are allowed out as the week progresses. This should help to encourage them to get back into the habit of laying back at “home” and not out on the range.
If the retraining session above does not work, your options include: 1) Determining which chicken it is when she doesn’t return at night and taking note of her wanderings during the day to try to figure out where she is laying, or 2) Allowing her do her thing and risking a batch of chicks if she manages to survive predators for that long.
Common places for hens to lay include under vehicles, in dog houses, under low-growing bushes, and under steps and porches. Basically, look for a semi-protected, cozy place that a hen would feel secure in and would be willing to spend a few weeks sitting on.
Free-range eggs have much to offer for those that can find them. Raising them yourself brings much satisfaction as they provide for some of your sustainable food needs. The hens who lay the eggs also bring joy and much entertainment as you get to know your flock. I wish you the best in your journey to healthier foods.