What is Pastured Poultry?

Free Range, Organic, All Natural, Pastured Poultry: what do they all mean?

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 poultry.

Problems with the term "Free Range" and "Organic"

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 open air and under the sun; even if their "range" is bare dirt.

When it comes to the consumer's perception of "free-range", arguably the vision that "free-range" most often conjures is of a bird happily hunting and pecking in the grass in an open field. 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."(2) They do give guidelines that say: "All organically raised animals must have access to the outdoors..."(3) 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.

Conventional Chickens

Modern conventional chicken production for meat (broilers) typically takes place in windowless buildings that house tens of thousands of birds. For egg production, the largest farms have millions of chickens stacked in cages three high. Feed is taken to the birds on conveyor belts and the eggs brought back the same way. The birds are debeaked so that they do not cannibalize each other. Once a day a human being has to walk through to remove dead birds.

When "Free Range" means "pastured"

The fourth edition of the American Heritage® College Dictionary (4) 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 (5), 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) free-range chickens"

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. In the mid nineteen nineties Herman Beck-Chenoweth, with the help of a USDA SARE grant, published his handbook on free-range poultry production. The handbook offered an updated version of the free-range poultry model popular with U.S. poultry producers from the 1930's to the 1960's (and still used in Europe), prior to the widespread use of the commercial confinement chicken house. Beck-Chenoweth's version calls for large tarp-roofed skid houses placed at least 100 feet apart and 150 feet from a perimeter fence; the houses are moved every few weeks. 10,000-20,000 birds a season can be raised in this manner. (6)

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 (8). 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 typically 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.

The type of pastured poultry farmer Tropical Traditions works with is also typically a "diversified" farmer, who does not raise chickens exclusively on their farm. They will rotate tracts of land with crops and other animals, or let it go fallow from time to time. When a batch of chickens is raised on a piece of pasture, typically that pasture will not see chickens again for two or more years. In the interval, crops may be grown in that pasture, or it may go fallow allowing grass to grow, die, and decompose so that the soil is kept in balance and not contaminated from too much chicken manure.

Addendum: 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 (9)". 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 (10):

  • Hens have access to open-air runs during daylight hours.

  • Hens must be protected from predators at all times.

  • The ground to which hens have access is mainly covered with palatable vegetation and has some shade provided.

  • It is essential to have vegetation cover growing on the land where the hens are permitted to range.

  • The 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).


(1) From the USDA site on meat and poultry labeling:http://www.fsis.usda.gov/OA/pubs/lablterm.htm  

(2) NOP terms defined: http://www.ams.usda.gov/nop/NOP/standards/DefineReg.html

(3)  From the USDA website on the National Organic Program:  http://www.ams.usda.gov/nop/FactSheets/ProdHandE.html

(4) The American Heritage College Dictionary, Fourth Edition copyright 2004, 2002 Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.)

(5) 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.

(6) Beck-Chenoweth, Herman. Free-Range Poultry Production & Marketing: A Guide to Raising, Processing, and Marketing Premium Quality Chicken, Turkey & Eggs, copyright 1996, BACK FORTY BOOKS, Creola, Ohio 45622.

(7) Lee, Andy and Patricia Foreman. Day Range Poultry,  2002. Good Earth Publications, Buena Vista, Virginia,  p. 308

(8) Salatin, Joel. Pastured Poultry Profits copyright 1993 by Joel Salatin, Second printing 2004, Third printing 1996, Polyface, Inc., Swoope, Virginia, p. 334

(9) http://attra.ncat.org/attra-pub/poultryoverview.html#conventional

(10) The Free Range Egg Producers Association of Australia standards: http://www.agric.nsw.gov.au/reader/poultry/free-range-eggs.htm#Standards

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