Pasture Raised vs Free Range

Sometimes I hear people refer to our farm as a free range farm, and I’ll admit that it makes me wince. Clearly there is a of confusion when people have trouble distinguishing between Pasture Raised and Free Range. Both terms sound similar, but in terms of the work that is done on the farm there is a world of difference.

What do we mean when we compare Pasture Raised vs Free Range? Is one better than the other?

These are important questions. They get to the heart of what I think is so special about our chicken.

To keep things simple, I’ll refer to chickens below, but everything applies to the question of Pasture Raised Turkeys vs Free Range Turkeys.

A pasture raised chicken foraging in grass at Wrong Direction Farm.
A pasture raised chicken at Wrong Direction Farm

Pasture Raised Key Points

For a legitimate claim to have pasture raised chicken, a farm needs to be doing two essential activities:

  1. Raising chickens on pastures (i.e., in grassy fields, not on bare dirt and not in barns)
  2. Moving chickens to fresh pasture frequently

Innovative farmers have accomplished these two goals in different ways, but all pasture raised chickens must be on vegetative pastures and must be on the move.

The rationale for pasture raised is that chickens are better off when they can be in a more natural environment. They are healthier and stronger when they are able to eat grass and insects. They don’t suffer the respiratory or mobility problems common among barn-raised chickens. Foraging among fresh greens transforms the nutritional profile, providing them better access to naturally occurring sources of vitamins and minerals.

Moving the chickens frequently prevents them from overgrazing the plants and scratching for bugs to the point of bare dirt. Hard packed dirt doesn’t provide any grazing for the chickens. And we want to avoid stripping plants off because it encourages rainwater runoff rather than permitting absorption.

The act of moving between pastures also puts the chickens on clean ground, free from old manure buildup. Chicken manure spread across a field is great for fertility, but concentrated manure can overwhelm and kill plants.

Free Range Key Points

“Free Range” is a defined term of the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service. The Federal definition is “continuous and unconfined access to pasture throughout their life cycle“. This sounds promising at first, and with the reference to pasture in there one might think it is the same as pasture raised. It is not.

Free Range chickens live in barns with added outdoor access. In my travels through chicken farming parts of the country, I’ve had the chance to see these free range chicken farms first hand. From the outside, they look nearly the same as conventional confinement chicken houses. Depending on the company that owns the chickens, the outdoor access can vary. In some situations the chickens can move in a small field along the entire length of the building. I have seen other free range farms with just two small fenced porches positioned along the 500 foot length of the building. In either housing style — because of the tens of thousands of chickens present — the outdoor areas accessible to the birds are bare dirt.

Practically speaking, because of the inconvenience of getting outside, I’ve only seen a small percentage of the flocks using the outdoor area. There may be operations that do a better job of providing outdoor space for chickens, but in my observation the “access to pasture” part of the regulation is typically honored in the breach more than in practice.

The Free Range rules do not regulate whether the chickens have any meaningful access to pasture. There are no assurances that the intrepid chicken that does manage to get outside will ever need to find a blade of grass when it gets there.

Pasture Raised vs Free Range

“Free Range” turns out to be a distinction without a difference. In the best case it is a vague promise; in the worst case it is a deception.

Whenever I see the Free Range label, I know those words were chosen so I would envision something like pasture raised chicken, while the product itself is confinement chicken raised with a token patch of bare dirt outside. As far as marketing goes, it has been a triumph of greenwashing.

Pasture raised chicken entails more effort for the farmer. It necessarily involves extra labor to move the chickens across a pasture. Because of the logistics, farmers are also working with smaller flocks of chickens so there aren’t the huge economies of scale. All that results in higher costs, and those higher costs are appealing to companies trying to upmarket cheap commodity chicken as free range to unwitting customers.

For the comparison between Pasture Raised and Free Range, only pasture raised chicken delivers superior nutrition due to the fresh diet and exercise benefitting chickens on green grass. Pasture raised chicken protects and preserves topsoil and water resources. Free range simply allows high density chicken producers to shine up their image without substantially changing their practices.

Choose Pasture Raised

Be a wise consumer and know what you are getting. That’s why I always emphasize the importance of knowing your farmer. If you want better food, find a farmer, ask questions, and buy from them regularly. You’ll find satisfaction in having confidence in the food you eat!

8 thoughts on “Pasture Raised vs Free Range”

  1. So the difference between pasture raise and free range chickens is free range has no fence. The chickens can run anywhere they want. Can’t see the difference. Where do the chickens go when there is a fresh 6 inch snow?

    1. The point is that any chicken labeled as free range is probably not nearly as free as you would hope. They are barn-raised chickens with a very small outdoor access, not necessarily even having access to grass.

      Pasture raised is very different. Chickens are out on living, green grass all the time.

      The question about snow is important. Pasture raised broiler chickens can only be raised seasonally in cold climates. In NY this means we’re only raising chickens on pasture from late April through October or early November.

  2. I often wondered this and never got around to looking into it. Appreciate the information, your hard work, and your great meat!

    1. Thanks. For a long time I just assumed everyone would know the difference and I never specifically laid it out, but that is probably because as a farmer I’m always focused on these details. Based on the feedback I’ve received, I think I need to make sure the blog posts cover a few more topics like this from time to time.

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