What does it mean?
Free Range? Cage free? Pasture?
Competition for your dollars drives large corporate farm to use language and invokes a sense of quality to the consumer. Ask many farmer market customers what free range means to them and it is plump hens grazing the country side's lush green pastures. Cage free can also give a sense of natural product, healthy diet and stress free life for the chickens. Sadly many of these terms do not mean what you may think they do.
This label is regulated by the USDA ONLY for chickens not eggs or cattle. In order to label your product as "free range", the animal must have "access" to the outdoors for a given period of time during the day. This can be a dirt, gravel or cement lot, not specifically pasture or grass. The animal does not "have to" go outside at all but it must have the ability to do so. Average confinement area is approximately 1.5 sq ft per bird.
This label is also regulated by the USDA for egg production only. Commercially grown chickens for meat are never "caged" so the label is misleading; unlike chickens in large scale egg production who live their entire short life in a small cage with several other birds in order to keep the eggs clean and intact. However, cage free doesn't mean that they run through fields of grass every day. Commercial growers confine chickens to indoor warehouses containing thousands of chickens averaging 2 sq ft per bird. No outside access is required.
This is our preferred way to grow our chickens and eggs on the farm. Nature provides most of the nutrients through grass, bugs and sunshine. Chickens can be confined within "chicken tractors" or mobile coops and still qualify for this classification.