Free-range chickens are chickens that are raised on pasture and allowed to feed themselves on a normal diet of grass and bugs. They are free to range over the ground, out in the sunshine and fresh air, eating what they choose. They may eat some commercial grain-based food, but they are not confined in cages.
Chickens are scavengers and omnivores, and they need protein in addition to plant foods. Bugs, grubs, and worms provide this protein and contribute to the chicken’s optimal state of health. If allowed, they will spend a great deal of their time scratching and scavenging over wide areas, looking for food.
A reader named Bill sent me some information about “broiler” chickens, and I’m including his comments to consider. Bill raised broiler chickens which are specifically bred to provide meat, and he says these birds do not range at all because they are too heavy. My thought on these birds is that I wouldn’t call these chickens “natural”, because evolution wouldn’t produce a chicken which was too heavy to be mobile.
But I’m including the information as an FYI, as I hadn’t considered these kinds of birds, and I thank Bill for the information. The next time I’m at my health food store and see a label for “free-range chicken from broiler chickens”, I’ll have to consider that these birds probably didn’t eat many bugs.
When we let our egg-laying chickens range freely over the entire yard, they will spend all day ranging the length and breadth of at least 4 acres around the house and never once go back to the fenced-in area where the feeders are located. Only at dusk, do they file back into the fenced area, so they can get to their roosts for the night.
As a result of a healthy diet, the meat and eggs from these birds are clean and healthier for you. The meat is higher in vitamins and minerals, and it is free of pesticide residues and antibiotics. Free-range chickens are raised naturally and have naturally good health.
Pastured, grass-fed chickens stay healthy, and there is less pressure to use antibiotics for disease prevention and growth promotion. Reducing antibiotic use lessens antibiotic resistance and reduces the likelihood that super strains of bacteria resistant to human drugs will develop.
In contrast, chickens raised in confinement operations live in cages and are given large amounts of antibiotics to prevent the inevitable diseases that come from confining thousands of these birds in tiny spaces. In Modern Livestock and Poultry Production, a book by James Gillespie, there’s a chart of the number of antibiotics added to chicken feed in confinement operations. I counted no less than 11 different antibiotics listed including Bacitracin methylene disalicylate, bacitracin zinc, chlortetracycline, erythromycin, hygromycin, neomycin, novobiocin, oxytetracycline, and penicillin.
Answer to the “Free Range Birds Have the Same Amounts of Salmonella as Confined Birds” Argument…
Some studies have shown that free-range chicken has the same amount of salmonella and campylobacter bacteria as confined chicken. The logical conclusion is then “why pay more”.
Here’s my take on this: Salmonella bacteria are present in the digestive tracks of all warm-blooded animals, including chickens. In these studies, the researchers compared free-range birds to confined birds, but no mention was made of the antibiotics the confined birds had been fed all their lives.
It seems to me that if those confined birds had NOT been fed antibiotics, the levels of salmonella and campylobacter would be much, much higher than in the free-range birds.
When someone does a study comparing the bacteria counts of free-range birds with confined birds that are antibiotic-free, I’ll take a closer look.
In any case, choosing meat from free-range birds means you won’t be consuming all those antibiotics with your chicken.
Where to Get Real Free Range Chicken
You’ll find healthy free-range chickens on small family-owned, sustainable farms where they are part of the farm’s natural ecosystem. To find local farms, check out the Eat Wild website. Many of the dairies on the Grass-fed dairy page also sell poultry and eggs.
Important note: Be wary of the free-range chicken at large scale stores like Whole Foods. They may say “free-range”, but Michael Pollan in The Omnivore’s Dilemma visited an organic chicken farm in California that supplies Whole Foods with chicken. He found that the chickens only had access to grass for the last few weeks of their lives. Since these chickens had never seen grass, they didn’t even know how to go into it and feed.
The living conditions and feed for these organic chickens were better than commercial non-organic farms, but if you are going to pay more money for free-range chicken, I’d recommend getting the real deal.
Find a local farm source for your chicken and eggs. Visit and watch how the chickens are fed. Find out if they have been allowed to live naturally, eating grass and scavenging seeds, bugs and grubs. This is true “free-range” chicken. These birds will taste better and be better for you.