Free range is the poultry housing system most actively supported by welfare groups for egg production. Currently there are 1.69 million free range hens in Australia (11% of total laying hens in Australia) with an estimated grocery market share of 14.5%. Free range eggs are worth 23% of the value of the Australian egg industry, which is more than $71 million a year. Free Range poultry system for commercial production of eggs or chicken meat is considered an environmentally sustainable land use practice. This is achieved by limiting the stocking densities of birds outside the shed.
Under the Model Code of Practice for the Welfare of Animals (domestic fowl), free range allows poultry the maximum access to its natural behavioural instincts. Free Range hens are free to roam during daylight hours but are secured at night to protect them from inclement weather and predators. Feed and potable water points are available within the shed housing which is in accordance with biosecurity regulations. Beak trimming is acceptable when carried out by accredited personnel only when all other treatments have been exhausted and must be initiated under veterinary instructions. In the free range system beak trimming at day old is not adopted. Human contact within the free range system is vital as constant interaction is necessary during hand egg collection, cleaning and monitoring stock.
Limited stocking density per shed is required to allow the hens’ freedom of movement based on the Farm Animal Welfare Code ‘five freedoms’. These are:
Free range chicken meat accounts for approximately 10 to 15% of chicken produced, with less than 1% of the total production also being organic. Free range meat chickens are produced using similar management, housing and feeding practices as conventional meat chickens. The major differences are that free range chickens are allowed access to an outside run for part of each day (at least post the brooding period), have lower target stocking densities and some health issues are managed differently. Antibiotics can be used to treat sick birds but, once treated, the meat from these birds cannot be sold as free range. The main certifier of free range chicken meat in Australia is Free Range Egg and Poultry Australia Ltd (FREPA). The standards that free range meat chickens must comply with to be certified by FREPA. The major suppliers of free range chickens are two of the three largest companies operating in the commercial chicken meat industry.
The Barn poultry layer system is a mix between the cage system and free range system. Barn hens are housed on deep litter in secure and weatherproof sheds. While they are provided with ample water, feed, ventilation, space and nesting boxes in accordance with the Model Code of Practice for the Welfare of Animals (domestic farm), they do not range out of doors. Limited stocking density allows room for the opportunity to express their full range of natural behaviours. They have the freedom to flap their wings, stretch, fly and dust bathe. This allows hens to move around and explore their environment. The extra space also allows submissive birds to avoid dominant birds if they need to, which can reduce aggressive pecking and improve welfare. Hens have access to a private, enclosed area for laying, which is a priority for hens. Beak trimming is generally allowed with the beak of most birds trimmed at day old to limit feather pecking and cannibalism. Barn sheds are usually fully automated with central nesting boxes over conveyor belts which carry the eggs out of the shed into a packing area, thus avoiding human contact.
Only free range hens can be used to produce certified organic eggs and meat and must be grown without the use of artificial colours and synthetic chemicals, according to the national standards. Birds are fed certified organic feed grown from soil that is certified as organic and does not contain pesticides or inorganic fertilisers. Under the regulations, no antibiotic medication is to be used for treatment of organic poultry. Organic standards for egg production specify the types of feed, accommodation, and living conditions which are suitable for organic laying hens. While healthy hens require shelter for security and protection against the elements, they also benefit from the freedom to scratch and forage naturally outdoors. A clean, pollution free range provides a suitably varied natural diet, one that is rich in essential vitamins, minerals, and trace elements.
Certified organic meat chickens have two additional requirements as well as having to be free range:
Certified organic chicken meat bears a certification logo from an approved organisation, and producers must comply with The National Standard for Organic and Bio-Dynamic Produce. Note that at present, chicken meat can be described as ‘organic’ without being certified by an organic association. Therefore it is important to look for a relevant certification.