The term free range is widely accepted as an ethical and sustainable way of farming, yet the definition of ‘free-range eggs’ and ‘free-range hens’ in Australia had no industry standard until this year, so the term was often misused. Unfortunately, despite the new standard introduced in March, the term free range continues to be misunderstood.
Knowledge about the new industry standard among the wider public is low and consumers still remain confused about the definition of free range. Many consider free-range hens to be raised on green pastures where they are free to roam, but the reality is quite different.
The free-range standard allows for a stocking rate of 10,000 hens per hectare. The standard also allows for poultry sheds to hold between 20,000 and 30,000 birds. There is no requirement for the hens to spend time outside; all they require is access to the outside through a small door that is 45cm high.
Locally, hens at The Farm are ‘pasture raised’, a term that has been chosen to be both ethical and true to its name. According to The Farm, ‘The main point of difference between free-range hens and pasture-raised hens is that ours are not kept in sheds, our stocking rates are much lower, and our hens are free to roam and forage in green pastures. This may seem like a pretty small point of difference but this is a significant when it comes to a hen’s quality of life.’
The 400 hens at The Farm are raised on fresh pasture and have a Chicken Caravan as their roost. Chicken Caravans are very popular in sustainable and ethical farming practices, and offer benefits to both hens and the environment. The caravan is rotated daily around The Farm and offers functions that ensure farmers do not disturb the hens when eggs are collected. Hens are also given access to fresh pasture to roam and the environment is given time to regenerate and absorb nutrients from the hens’ manure.
In the hope of educating people about ethical and sustainable farming methods, The Farm runs Pastured-Egg Workshops. Lee McCosker who runs each course is a bold advocate for a better life for farmed animals and sustainable, profitable pasture-based production systems. Lee has spent the last eight years in the Humane Society with a focus on farm welfare and has spent six of those years heavily involved in definitions around free-range eggs. Lee is a trainer and assessor and has qualifications in agriculture, animal nutrition and sustainability. Lee has also conducted a number of studies on poultry production and poultry nutrition science.
There is a lot more to pasture-raised egg farming than meets the eye. Many believe that it is as simple as putting hens in a yard and collecting eggs. Farmers who chose to raise hens this way have much more labour-intensive and expensive systems. They also need to ensure they are educated about the industry’s licensing laws, codes of ethics and council permits required for pasture-raised egg farming.