Is there a difference between free range & organic chicken?

Is there a difference between free range & 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 our Farms Director 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, Farms Director at Daylesford Organic


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.


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 chickens are encouraged through genetic breeding to mature quickly, so they are ready for the table after just 30-35 days – which can lead to health issues.

Our organic chickens are slower growing due to the breed we have chosen, which helps ensure a higher welfare way of life. We breed animals responsibly, choosing varieties that are ideally suited to thrive in a purely organic environment; those that perform well on a natural forage-based diet and that grow slowly at their own pace.

Our Hubbard breed was selected for its excellent flavour and after hatching on our farm, our flock are completely free to roam our organic clover-rich grass pastures and woodlands day and night. Our birds mature over 70 days, which is twice as long as a conventional chicken.  

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 600, with no more than seven 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.

Over-crowded, unstimulated birds can become distressed and peck each other, a problem which intensive, non-organic farms may solve by beak trimming – a cruel practice that is banned under the Soil Association's organic standards. We prefer to provide our birds with the space and opportunities they need to fulfill their natural instinct to forage, dust-bathe and scratch.

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 believe strongly that antibiotics should be used for the treatment of disease only. In the case of our chicken and hen enterprises we choose to treat any disorder or illness homoeopathically. However, treatment is rarely needed as organic farming provides the perfect environment for animals to develop and maintain a naturally high immune system, just as nature intended.

Free-Range vs Organic: 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.