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Cage Free Vs Free Range - Demystifying Products Labels Part 2

October 14, 2017

Last time we discussed what the “natural” or “all natural” label meant. This time we are going to tackle the “cage free” vs. “free range” labels. First, some background. Most laying hens are kept in group cages while they lay their eggs. They are required to have ½ square foot of space per bird. For a mental image take a ruler and draw a six inch by six inch square on a piece of paper. That is the space requirement. Like all confinement houses, it gets quite dusty and ammonia (the smell of nitrogen in the manure with insufficient carbon to bond too {I’ll discuss this in a separate post} permeates the air. It also permeates the eggs, which are porous, which is why salmonella is such an issue with most confinement eggs. Also, the cages are stacked vertically to utilize space. This means when one hen needs to go “number 2” it falls down on the heads of the chickens below them. Talk about an unpleasant experience. Also, depending on the cage design, some houses have no way to remove expired hens from the cages (which means the dead hen decomposes next to its cell mates and then falls through the slatted floor onto the hens below it). Now that is a hard life. This system is justified through the argument that we need cheap eggs. These eggs are highly subsidized.  Even though we don’t pay much for these eggs in the grocery store, we actually do end up paying for these cheap eggs with our tax dollars.

So, if that is a caged hen, then cage free has to be way better right? Well …… not so much. You see, in a “cage free” concentration camp the industry would have us call a chicken house, the chickens are let out of the cages and given 1 square foot of space each (less than the screen of your laptop.) The house is still a dusty ammoniated mess. Now the birds can spook and flock into corners. Cool, right? Well, not when the ones on the bottom are smothered to death, which happens frequently in tight spaces. Also, because the birds are now contained exclusively on the floor they have to walk in, lie down in, and sleep on their manure that is piled on the floor. That manure is not cleaned up until all the birds are used up. Which means they’re nearly featherless (cramped conditions encourage the birds to peck each other incessantly) bodies are hauled to a processor and made into chicken soup. Sounds tasty, right?

Next, we’ll move onto the shining light of the label “free range.”  Now this is a cool label name. For me, it invokes images of massive herds of bison sweeping across the wide-open plains or a large herd of my own cows being rotated onto a large section of fresh grass. Naturally, (no pun intended) with chickens and eggs, the mental image should include happy hens joyously scratching in the grass and exhibiting the chickenness of the chicken (I’ll discuss that more in a minute.) For some eggs labeled “free range” that is indeed the case. Unfortunately, about 99% of the time it isn’t the case. You see, the “free range” label has kind of been hijacked. All a “cage free” house needs to do to qualify as free range is to allow some outdoor access to the birds. For most, this means a small access door is cut into the side of the house allowing  access to a small fenced “yard”. The yard is quickly denuded of vegetation (it’s what happens when any livestock is allowed continual access to any area; they eventually kill all the grass) and few of the hens ever leave the house. They are scared of the light and any change in their surroundings (after all, this concentration house is all they have ever known since they were a chick). Sadly, most free range eggs are really a bad buy. They can cost four to ten times as much as a “cage free” egg and there is almost never a difference in the quality of the egg. Both hens have in practice the same terrible environment and both are fed an exclusive diet of genetically modified, chemical soaked corn and soybeans. I attached an info graphic that helps make the point.

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Because the “free range” label has been hijacked by industrial systems, trying to make a fast buck on technicalities, we chose to not use the “free range” label on our eggs, even though our system is what most people picture when they think of “free range.” In our pasture system, we use biomimicry (imitating natural processes.) You see, the chickenness of the chicken is to scratch the earth, to eat a diversified diet of forage, insects, small mammals, seeds and grains (it is after all a omnivore), and like most birds, follow large herds of ruminants sanitizing the pasture by spreading the manure. While the chicken is quite removed from its ancestors of old, the glory of the chicken remains the same. That is to express its natural behavior while serving a greater purpose (sanitation, insect control, nutrient dense eggs).

As a Christian, I see the chickenness of the chicken as something to revere. I take my commission to steward the land as a call to utilize the chicken’s instinctual behaviors in a managed system that works with nature. If the chickenness of the chicken is to scratch, fertilize, sanitize, and nourish, then I believe my calling as a farmer is to allow the chicken to do just that.   By rotating the chickens to fresh pasture and following my grazing herds of sheep and cattle, I am able to jumpstart the ecological health of the land, sanitize, fertilize, and produce nutrient dense food for my family and my community. The rotation of the chickens onto fresh pasture  also ensures good sanitation for the hens and a healthy consumption of fresh forage and insects. This management also prevents the gift of the chicken from being abused by keeping them in one place therefore destroying the grass, causing ecological harm to the land, and physiological harm to the chickens (disease.)

I firmly believe that the chickenness of the chicken is not to be crammed into a cage or onto a fecal laden floor to repurpose genetically modified corn and soybeans into a mirage of an egg. To do so makes a mockery of the natural system and sets the stage for disaster (such as: food borne illness, pollution in our waterways, and an economy built on catch phrases instead of trust.)

That is why our pasture raised chicken system is different and why we encourage you to know your farmer and not to rely on marketing phrases that can be manipulated. Our hope is that this article has both empowered and inspired you.

Your Restoration Agriculturalists,

-David, Mariah, and Baby Judah

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