Starting Your Free Range Chicken Farm

Recently, consumers have shifted their focus on to healthier, more sustainable food choices. The spotlight on ethical animal production has increased the demand for free-range, organically-sourced products. Because of the capital and energy that needs to be invested into free-range, organic farming, the products sell for top-dollar. According to a paper published in the South African Journal of Animal Science, poultry meat and eggs are the most consumed source of animal protein worldwide. Therefore, business ventures that focus on ethical and sustainable chicken production can be very profitable.

That’s why we have created this post to introduce you to the rewarding business of free-range chicken farming. We are going to take a look at some basic concepts and the potential pros and cons a free-range farmer could face. By the end of this post, you will have laid the foundation required to kickstart your own free-range chicken production.

What does free-range mean?

Before we delve into any details, let’s answer the most important question: What is free-range chicken farming? For commercial purposes, the United States Department of Agriculture states that all production chickens need to be able to forage outdoors in order for the farmer to qualify for their free-range certification. On a smaller scale, homesteaders may simply leave their flock to roam free and forage during the day and cozy up in coops during the night. Therefore, in spite of the situation you can generally take free-range to refer to birds that feed outdoors for some time during the day.

Because the term ‘free-range’ is not standardised, farmers are taking advantage of this situation. This is apparent in places like Australia, where free range chicken production is changing the face of the egg industry. Farmers here report that customer demand and an increased ethical awareness convinced them to either switch to or begin free-range chicken farming. (Singh et al. 2017)

The classes of free-range chickens

Generaly, there are 4 classes that free-range chickens can fall under. These are:

  • Egg-producing chickens
  • Meat-producing chickens
  • Chickens that are reared for both eggs and meat
  • Chickens that are raised for other purposes, most commonly by hobbyists that like to keep the birds as pets, for example

Need more info on chickens?

The purpose of your chickens will determine many factors, such as the infrastructure you require, which breeds you should use, and feeding and nesting methods, to name a few. If all this seems a bit daunting, fear not! We have a Youtube playlist dedicated to answering all of your questions. 

No get rich quick scheme

While free-range chicken rearing can be rewarding and profitable, it is by no means an easy road to success. It is important that an entrepreneur be prepared to deal with the pros and cons of their business. To keep your spirits up, lets first take a look at some of the benefits that come with farming free-range chickens:

Pros

  • Because the birds are able to forage outdoors, they will not be limited to a single food source. Instead, their diet will likely contain a wider variety of proteins, vitamins and minerals that reflects their natural dietary requirements.
  • The flock will act as a natural form of pest control, limiting the need for chemical, and potentially harmful, compounds.
  • The chickens naturally fertilize the foraging area.
  • Free-range eggs often taste better and have a bright yellow yoke.
  • Free-range chicken meat is often leaner. The low-fat content makes it a healthier option.
  • Because the chickens can forage naturally, they will cost less to feed.
  • There is less over-crowding, which reduces the risk of disease spread and increases overall well-being.
  • There is no need to supply a grid to the birds.
  • The start-up costs are lower compared to conventional chicken farming.
  • You and the consumer can rest assured knowing the products were produced ethically, contributing to a positive social awareness.
  • While the free-range market is a niche one, it is fast growing with huge potential.
  • Free-range products sell for a premium.
  • Free-range farmers have the option of converting to a fully-fledged organic status in the future.

It is clear that the pros of rearing free-range chickens are plenty. However, that does not mean producers should ignore these drawbacks:

Cons

  • Free-range chickens require a fairly large area to forage on.
  • The chickens take longer to reach market readiness, especially those reared for meat.
  • Free-roaming chickens may damage crops and gardens.
  • When left to their own devices, chickens will feed indiscriminately, which may deplete food sources.
  • Free range chickens are an easy prey for predators.
  • Whilst large broiler houses are not necessary, chicken coops and runs are required for roosting and safety.
  • It is essential to protect the chickens in the wintertime and provide them with supplementary forage sources.

Getting started on your free-range journey

Now that we have made the case for free-range chicken farming, the next question is how does a farmer get started? Here are some brief tips to get you started.

  • The selected area should be well-drained and open to allow the chickens to forage at a rate of 1m2 per bird at least.
  • There needs to be space to construct a shelter to protect the chickens from predators and the elements. The roosting coops and runs should be large enough to accommodate 5 birds/m. These coops also need to be equipped with nesting boxes and material.         
  • A clean, fresh, cold water supply needs to be available.
  • In winter, lighting should be provided for at least 10 hours every day.
  • Depending on the quality of the natural forage, supplementary feed may need to be purchased.
  • The most important factor to consider is selecting the correct breed to suit your production purpose. Luckily, we have made a range of videos discussing exactly this so check them out for all you need to know.


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