FREE RANGE VS ORGANIC CHICKEN

How to ensure you are supporting the best farming standards

Every year in the UK, our small island consumes over one billion chickens; the equivalent of 2.7 million chickens a day for a population of 65 million.

Here, we speak with Senior Farms Manager Richard Smith to explore the chicken farming industry, what the different standards mean for both the animals and us as consumers and how commonly used labels and language may be misleading.

“The term free-range does not guarantee high welfare.”

– Richard Smith, Senior Farms Manager at Daylesford Organic

Why is there such a high demand for chicken?

In the UK we now consume more chicken than pork, lamb and beef combined. The UK chicken industry as a whole is worth over £4billion a year and employs some 37,000 people.

Looking at the stacked shelves in any major supermarket, or the buckets of deep-fried morsels dished out by high street chains, it is clear why these numbers are so big.

Chicken is popular with children and adults alike, it’s easy to prepare, can be used in many versatile recipes and is regarded as a lean, high-protein, healthy option. For some, meat has become an everyday staple rather than a rare treat to be enjoyed occasionally as previous generations would have.

DOES FREE-RANGE MEAN HIGH WELFARE & CHEMICAL FREE?

Most of us are aware that large barn-reared chickens at the lower end of the pricing scale are likely to have been produced in unpleasant conditions, overfed and pumped with water and antibiotics, but what of free-range?

The sad truth is that when it comes to some free-range chicken farming methods, consumers are being misled. As Richard puts it,

“free range is often nothing but a cunning marketing ploy which can offer minimal improvements on the average barn-reared bird. That is not to say that every free-range chicken is reared under unpleasant conditions, but what we must be aware of is that the term free-range does not guarantee high welfare.”

Intensive farming

A large percentage of the chickens consumed in the UK every day are barn-reared, a smaller proportion is free-range and fewer than 5% of chickens reared in the UK are organic.

To maximise their yields, intensive, non-organic farms where both barn and free-range chickens are reared will rely heavily on genetics, intensity, antibiotics and feed:

GENETICS: use a breed that will gain weight quickly, thus taking less time to get to market

INTENSITY: a high number of chickens per barn lowers your unit costs

ANTIBIOTICS: rely heavily on antibiotics to fight off disease due to overcrowding

FEED: use high protein (often GM) foods to encourage rapid weight gain

free range vs Organic: GENETICS

Intensively reared and free-range chicken farming methods predominantly use the same breed of bird. In these systems, a chicken weighs roughly 30g when newly hatched, and will grow to a staggering 2kg in weight in just 35 days. Their genetic traits are such that they put on weight at a staggering rate of around 50g every day. By 22 days old they resemble fully grown chickens and soon occupy all of the limited space available to them.

Because they are bred to put on weight rapidly, intensively reared chickens struggle to support their own body mass as they grow. If these breeds were allowed to live for 70 days (as they are in organic farming), they would walk with a gait and form hock burns and breast blisters from sitting in its own faeces.

At Daylesford we choose breeds that are best suited to an organic, free-range environment. Our chickens have continuous daylight access, naturally wish to range and forage and benefit from natural, slow growth which ultimately tastes better too.

free range vs Organic: INTENSITY

In free-range systems, there must be no more than 14 birds per square meter but there is no limit to the size of chicken house. Flocks 10,000 or more are commonplace which means many free-range chickens never actually range outside.

Imagine you are a quick-grown, heavy, tired chicken, with all your food and water in your house – are you really going to climb over thousands of your friends to reach one of the small, potentially infrequent ‘pop holes’ that leads to the outdoors?

At Daylesford we rear our chickens in groups of no more than 500, with no more than six birds per square meter, and each house has access to a vast area of lush organic pasture providing natural forage; grubs, worms, grass, clover and seeds for the chickens to enjoy along with their organic pellet feed. Access to this area is easy with large pop holes on both sides, running the length of the houses.

free range vs Organic: antibiotics

Since intensively reared birds are kept indoors and denied access to roam freely, they tend not to develop strong immune systems, so disease can spread quickly. To counteract this risk, antibiotics are routinely mixed with their feed or water – some non-organic, intensively reared, day old chicks will eat twice their weight in antibiotics in the first 14 days of life because farmers strive to prevent disease. The routine use of antibiotics in farming is entering our food chain and causing a wide range of problems.

At Daylesford we never use antibiotics on our chickens or hens because our organic farming system provides the perfect environment for animals to thrive: fresh air, low stocking density, room to roam, natural foraged balanced diet, clean water, ample feed, high hygiene standards all make for naturally healthy birds with strong immune systems.

free range vs Organic: FEED

Feed for non-organic birds is often very high in protein to allow for maximum, rapid growth. The use of genetically modified (GM) crops is permitted and birds are encouraged to eat as much as possible.

Our organic chickens at Daylesford are fed a 100% organic diet free from GM, which along with what they forage results in a healthy, active, bird with superb tasting, nutritious meat.

In summary, it is important to be aware where your food comes from and ask questions as consumers.

There is no doubt that a vast number of farmers producing free-range chickens are producing excellent quality, high-welfare birds, but under this cleverly termed ‘free-range’ standard the opposite may also apply. The best way to ensure that you are always buying high quality, high-welfare meat is to choose organic.

This initiative supports the UN Sustainable Development Goals.