Thursday, June 03, 2010

What is free range?

The Australian Egg Corporation is about to publicly launch its Egg Corp Assured program which currently has about 140 accredited producers throughout Australia (only 19 in Victoria) out of over 500 commercial egg farms. The AECL says the program will give consumers confidence in the eggs they buy. It's a tremendous program to ensure food safety but it will do little if anything to smooth the debate over community perceptions of 'free range' eggs.

From consumer research carried out at Farmers' Markets, a definition that most buyers seem to accept is: 'Free-range chickens are able to spend most of their time outdoors. They should not be de-beaked. The hens should not be confined to small areas. True free-range flocks are generally fed and watered inside and outside their roosting sheds'.

This encourages the birds to scratch around outdoors and keeps the laying sheds cleaner and drier. If fences confine the birds to very small areas, the farm shouldn't be described as free-range, and neither should those where the hens are de-beaked, large numbers are in each flock and feed and water is only provided in sheds to keep the birds inside most of the time.

The broader egg industry view is that the term 'free range' applies to any poultry with access to an outdoor area, no matter how few birds actually go outside and how uninviting their outdoor paddock is.

What's the problem with a yard egg system?

It comes down to the amount of manure the land can handle, and the geometry of chicken yards. An acre of productive grassland can handle about four tonnes of chicken manure per year. That's roughly the output of up to 100 chickens. So, unless you want to kill off the grass and pollute the area with run-off, the limit is around 100 – 150 outdoor chickens per acre – unless you remove the manure.

What's worse is that the droppings are never evenly distributed across the yard. The manure is concentrated near the chicken house. This kills off all plant life near the chicken shed (if its a fixed shed) even if the chickens don't destroy the grass sod by scratching.

100 hens per acre equates to about 400 square feet per hen. Hens don't usually travel long distances. They'll go 100 - 200 metres from the hen houses in good weather, if properly encouraged by outdoor feeders, waterers, vegetation and shade.

How the Europeans manage 400 hens per acre in their 'free-range' flocks.

EU regulations allow 400 hens per acre but require that the yards remain green. If that many hens actually went outdoors, the grass would be destroyed in no time. The manure load of 400 outdoor hens is unsustainable on one acre, killing the grass, producing high nutrient run-off levels, and a muddy yard unless the nutrients are removed from the ground. But as the hens spend most of their time indoors, the grass can remain green. It's similar in Australia where the current Model Code of Practice for the Welfare of Animals – Domestic Poultry sets out a maximum stocking density of 1500 birds per hectare (600 per acre). The Code doesn't limit flock sizes, so large farms have been established with sheds containing tens of thousands of birds – and they are classified as 'free-range' as long as they have 'access' to an outdoor run.

The Model Code states that 'Every effort should be made to avoid beak trimming by selecting chickens for reduced feather pecking and cannibalism'

But we would challenge anyone to find a big 'free range' farm in Victoria which has anything but de-beaked (or beak trimmed birds). The industry is geared to beak trim all chicks at day old or soon after, and no big egg producer considers an alternative. The selection of laying hens is based solely on production and all major 'free range' farms buy hibrid hens which were developed for the cage industry and which were bred for one characteristic - to lay the maximum number of eggs. The AECL's Egg Corp Assured program does not require farms accredited to the program to demonstrate any attempt to address the potential problem of feather pecking or cannibalism before resorting to de-beaking the birds.
Chickens eat and drink many times during a day, so their movements can be managed by careful placement of feeders and waterers. The basic scam in Australia (and in Europe) involves only having feeders and waterers in the sheds as far from the outside doors as possible, installing only a few doors and making them as small as possible. Some hens will go outside, providing window dressing for gullible observers, but most hens stay indoors.

The reality is that most 'free-range' hens are really confined in barns surrounded by nice lawns. To produce the coloured yolks associated with free-range flocks, many producers add special colouring ingredients to the feed. Some of these additives are claimed to be 'natural' but nearly all are produced in laboratories by men in white coats. If the hens eat grass, other green vegetation and a corn-based ration, the yolks will be a vibrant golden colour. But yolk colour in eggs from real free range farms will vary depending on the time year and the availability of green feed. If yolk colour never varies, you can be sure that colouring additives are being fed to the hens. Another indicator that shows that the flocks aren't free range at all is if the hens are de-beaked. With true free-range flocks, feather-picking and cannibalism are rare. Those behavioural problems are caused by intensive farming, confinement, farm management and choice of birds. Which is why the majority of Australia's 'free-range' commercial flocks are beak-trimmed as a matter of course.

It's disappointing that the RSPCA encourages the de-beaking of birds by accepting royalty payments for the barn laid and 'free range' eggs which it accredits.

Some of the big producers even claim, after doing everything to discourage the hens from ever venturing outside, that 'chickens don't like to go outdoors.' Everyone who has ever had a small flock knows that chickens will spend most of their time outdoors if the weather isn't too bad and feed and water are provided outside.

The regulations have been written for major operators who have transfered large-scale factory farming techniques to a version of 'free range' farming which provide opportunities for the businesses to maximise profits by allowing them to charge a premium for eggs which should be classified as 'cage-free' rather than 'free range'.

So how do you do it right?

Traditional free-range egg production is just part of a diversified farm. It enables a farm to make full use of the nutrients from the chicken manure. And it adds to the sustainability of the farming enterprise.

Many free range farms use portable hen houses, either on wheels or on skids. They can be moved around with a tractor to prevent the ground around the houses becoming muddy. This is the traditional approach we use at the Freeranger Farm. There is a trend towards using mobile electric poultry netting combined with frequent shed moves probably every 1-3 days. Moving the sheds is labour intensive but it helps to maintain pasture growth. With low stocking density, even if the houses are left in place for several weeks at a time, a scattering of bare rectangles every now and then on the pasture is not significant. The grass will regrow over the season. By feeding the hens outdoors and moving the feeders regularly, it's possible to get most of the effect of moving the houses, but with less effort.

It's clearly much more labour-intensive than the pretend 'free-range' techniques most big operators use, so it's not worth doing unless prices are substantially higher than for eggs produced by other methods – which is why the big producers don't want a legal definition of 'free range' to prohibit de-beaking and limit flock sizes.

It's often possible to get away with infrequent house moves as the manure under a chicken house becomes drier and less obnoxious the longer the house sits in one place. For the first few days a house is in a new spot, the manure can be wet and smelly. If the house has been in one place for a month, the manure is quite dry and there is no smell. Moving the houses too frequently seems to maximize the wetness and smell. Some operators have trays under the sheds to catch the manure and allow it to be spread where it is required rather than simply dropping through to the ground under the chicken house.

On clay soil, the mud problem makes it important to keep a solid turf at all times. Permanent pasture is the simplest way of achieving this, though a crop rotation with grasses or clover as one phase will also work. On sandy or gravely soils, cultivating the soil does not lead to an instant mud problem, so keeping the chickens among growing crops is a viable alternative.

Chickens love shade. It keeps them cool, out of the wind, and protects them from eagles, hawks and owls. Plantings of things like Kangaroo Apples, corn, kale, and sunflowers are suitable in the range areas, and native grasses can help to boost protein levels (as well as being drought tolerant to maintain green feed for most of the year). Adding plants like purslane in the pasture can boost Omega 3 levels in the eggs. To be sure that the eggs you buy realy are free range, look for the logo of the Free Range Farmers Association. Member farms are required to meet all food safety standards, all packaging and labelling requirements and maintain production and sales records to ensure truth in labelling - as well as a strict welfare code which prohibits the de-beaking of birds.

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