Regulation of Free-Range Systems for Chicken Health and Welfare

Fig 1. Comparison of yolks in eggs produced by grass-fed chickens (left) and grain fed chickens (right). Paige, E. (2009, 13 September). Free range eggs versus confined grain fed eggs. Health Banquet. Retrieved from

Fig 1. Comparison of yolks in eggs produced by grass-fed chickens (left) and grain fed chickens (right).
Paige, E. (2009, 13 September). Free range eggs versus confined grain fed eggs. Health Banquet. Retrieved from

Un-ideal free-range system 'Survival Gardner'. (2015, 18 August). Free-range eggs versus regular eggs - a scam? Retrieved from

Un-ideal free-range system
‘Survival Gardner’. (2015, 18 August). Free-range eggs versus regular eggs – a scam? Retrieved from

Happy free-range chicken in ideal system Bufkin, M.T. (2015, 28 March). The truth about free range chickens. The Truth About Agriculture. Retrieved from

Ideal free-range system
Bufkin, M.T. (2015, 28 March). The truth about free range chickens. The Truth About Agriculture. Retrieved from

Conventional caged system (2015, 23 August). Why the Israelites could eat grasshoppers but not pork: the reason for old testament dietary laws and the huge implication they have for our health today. Wellness in the Word. Retrieved from

Conventional caged system
(2015, 23 August). Why the Israelites could eat grasshoppers but not pork: the reason for old testament dietary laws and the huge implication they have for our health today. Wellness in the Word. Retrieved from

Kelly Dalton – Building and Construction Technology

Mackay Eyster – Environmental Science

Jonah Miller – Natural Resources Conservation

Perhaps one of the most ubiquitous illustrators of the ability for individual choice is the number of different products available at a grocery store. Stores contain row after row of bright boxes, innovative packaging, and promotions emphasizing which products are the healthiest or most natural. Each eye-catching box presents a nutrition label, and consumers are expected to use that information, combined with the claims on the boxes and in the aisles, to decide which products are the best for them and their families. There is an ever-growing emphasis on purchasing ethical products, but misleading labeling practices can make it difficult for consumers to effectively make ethical purchasing decisions. Consumers may be presented with eggs labeled “cage-free” or “free-range,” and they may choose to support those products due to the implication that the laying hens were treated better or more humanely than those who produced the unlabeled eggs; unfortunately, this is not always the case. While unlabeled eggs come from hens living in their own individual chicken-sized shoe boxes, eggs with labels such as “free-range” may differ only in that they come from hens living in one collective, slightly-larger shoebox. The latter hens’ shoebox might have a door to the outside, but they may not ever actually go through it. While the latter hens are more able to move around than those in the individual shoeboxes (commonly referred to as battery cages), they often become aggressive and violent towards each other due to the constant forced interaction. Even still, the eggs from the shared shoebox carry a “free-range” label that portrays them as more ethical than those from the conventional systems, and consumers attempting to make ethical choices pay higher prices for free-range eggs under the assumption that they truly are. It should not be a consumer’s responsibility to ensure that provided information is accurate, and producers should not be able to manipulate consumers with misleading information in order to charge a higher price. As such, the matter of empty “free-range” labeling must be addressed. 

Consumers should be able to read labels on products and understand their meaning without being mislead by producers.

Current Understanding of Free-range

Theoretically, “free-range” means that the system’s animals spend time in an outdoor environment, but often free-range systems do not live up to this expectation. Under the current USDA free-range certification standards, there are no requirements dictating the amount of time hens spend must outside, the minimum allowable size of indoor or outdoor environments, or any specific range area characteristics such as ground cover material or foraging opportunities. As a result, a housing structure that has one small door may be certifiably “free-range,” even if the door is rarely opened or if the outdoor environment is nothing more than a few feet of cement (Kelto, 2014). One study completed by Nagle and Glatz (2012) found that when producers provide reasons for birds to go further out into the range — perhaps in order to make use of hay bales, access shade, or find other enrichment — they will autonomously decide to take advantage of the space they are provided, with approximately 14% more birds venturing out from their shed than those who only have access to an empty open space (p. 589). There is evidence to suggest that this increased dispersal may be beneficial to the hens’ welfare, but the current lack of regulations allows free-range systems that do not provide any incentive for the hens to disperse.

Un-Ideal Free-range System

Poorly managed free-range systems can have some negative effects on chickens’ welfare. Rates of aggression and of mortality due to cannibalization tend to increase with flock size, and free-range systems often house large flocks in densely populated sheds that do not allow the birds to separate or protect themselves from one another (Shimmura et al., 2012). In a study completed by Shimmura et al. (2012), large furnished cages housed the same number of chickens as free-range systems, but the large furnished cages provided a greater amount of indoor space per chicken (0.83 cm2 for those in large furnished cages versus 0.72 m2 for those in free-range systems) and a higher quantity of enriching furnishings (p. 32-3). The authors found that the mortality rate due to cannibalization was lower in the large furnished cage (2.8%) than in the free-range system (6.9%) (Shimmura et al., 2012, p.34), conveying that, in addition to flock size, the amount of space and enrichment provided likely influences the rate of mortality due to cannibalism.

Benefits to Chicken Health and Welfare in Properly-Managed Free-range Systems

Despite the high rates of aggression and cannibalism, free-range systems offer several benefits to layer health and welfare over those kept in other housing systems and, when managed properly, may successfully reduce the prevalence of aggressive and cannibalistic behaviors. Ideally, a free-range system means a system in which chickens are uncaged and free to walk around and engage in other natural behaviors. Most importantly, an ideal free-range system allows chickens to easily access an enriched natural outdoor environment (Sherwin, Richards, Nicoi, 2010). Nagle and Glatz (2012) determined that chickens are more willing to utilize outdoor environments that are enriching and natural, compared to unnatural indoor housing or outdoor environments that lack opportunities for stimulation. For example, they observed that significantly more hens chose to use shaded areas than other unshaded areas provided in the open paddock (Nagle & Glatz, 2012). They also noted that when shelterbelts (shrubs in pots) were provided in the range area, 17 times more hens used the shelterbelt area than an open non-shaded area (Nagle & Glatz, 2012, p. 587). A study completed by Dawkins, Cook, Whittingham, Mansell, and Harper (2002) observed the hens’ use of different habitats within the range area and found that, while they clearly prefered to remain close to the house, they also made frequent use of areas containing trees and shrubs prefered those areas over any other distant habitat (p. 158).  The increased dispersal that enriched outdoor areas, trees and shrubs, and provided opportunities to exhibit “exploratory behaviors” (Nagle & Glatz, 2012, p. 584) facilitates may help reduce the problems of aggression and cannibalism that stem from the large flock size. (Nagle & Glatz, 2012).

Behavioral Advantage in Free-range System

Out of all housing systems, free-range chickens have the greatest ability to express normal behavior, allowing them to live more naturally and comfortably than is possible in cage systems, as observed in the studies completed by Yilmaz, İpek, Şahan, Petek, and Sözcü (2016), Shimmura et al. (2010), and Sherwin et al. (2010). Shimmura et al. (2010) compared chickens in different housing systems’ “freedom to express normal behavior” (p. 37) by assigning numerical values to various behaviors including but not limited to stretching, wing-flapping, dust-bathing, and moving. The authors then studied the frequency at which the animals presented those behaviors and calculated an average score for each housing system, where low scores represent little to no expression of normal behaviors and high scores represent frequent expression of normal behaviors. Through this, they found that free-range systems’ score of 44.2 was the highest out of any other housing system, while small conventional cages earned the lowest score of 0.0 (p. 37). When free-range systems successfully encourage chickens to take advantage of the space they have to move around, they are able to appropriately exhibit behaviors, such as foraging, which helps to reduce stress and aggression (Nagle & Glatz, 2012). Shimmura et al. (2010) noted that while feather pecking (an often harmful, aggressive behavior) is more common in large groups such as occur in free-range systems, it was still performed less in free-range than in the other large systems that did not allow access to the outdoors, and that pecking which did occur was predominantly of a non-severe, non-harmful nature. Overall, well-enriched free-range systems provide chickens with valuable opportunity to express natural behaviors and reduce the expression of negative behaviors, which are important considerations when quantifying the animals’ overall welfare.

Physical Health Advantage in Free-range System

In addition to the increased behavioral welfare, free-range systems can provide some physical health benefits. When determining the overall physical well being of the chickens, some of the characteristics one may observe include the rates of feather damage and aspects of bone strength. Several studies found that birds in free-range systems had the lowest rates of feather damage (which most often occurs as a result of aggressive feather pecking) when compared to all other housing systems, likely related to the non-aggressive nature of the feather pecking which did occur (Sherwin et al., 2010). Additionally, both Yilmaz et al. (2016) and Shimmura et al. (2010) determined that chickens in free-range systems had healthier bones in comparison to those in other systems, perhaps as a result of the provided opportunity to move around and exercise. Yilmaz et al. (2016) found that chickens within the free-range system had greater tibia strength and durability compared to those in conventional systems, while Shimmura et al. (2010) additionally found that free-range hens had stronger bones and lower rates of bone deformities. Yilmaz et al. (2016) concluded that, overall, free-range chickens are physically stronger and generally healthier than their counterparts in conventional and enriched cage systems (Yilmaz et al., 2016). With all of these behavioral and physical benefits considered, the well-being of free-range chickens can be said to exceed the well-being of those kept in cages.

USDA Poorly Regulates Free-range Systems

The USDA states that, in order to certify and thus label their systems as “free-range,” “producers must demonstrate to the Agency that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside” (USDA, 2015) but provides no further regulations on when or how that outdoor access is provided. As discussed previously, thoughtfully-executed free-range systems have the potential to be beneficial to chickens’ health and welfare, but under the current, vague certification requirements “free-range” systems are often managed in ways that that have no effect on, or are detrimental to, chicken welfare (Kelto, 2014). This issue is so prevalent because it is simple for producers to obtain the “free-range” label with very minimal changes to their management practices, and doing so may allow them to increase their revenue by raising products’ prices (USDA, 2016) and increasing sales as consumers assume that choosing “free-range” products is a worthwhile additional expense. This leniency in certification standards leaves consumers unethically misinformed; in order to address this problem and provide consumers with accurate information about the products they consume, the USDA should implement stricter regulations that ensure the best management of free-range systems for chicken welfare.

Ways to Take Action

There are several different policies that we suggest the USDA implements to improve free-range systems. More than any other, it is necessary to implement a regulation on the minimum amount of time that chickens spend outdoors. This is particularly important because the size and quality of an outdoor environment holds no relevance if hens are not guaranteed the ability to utilize that space. A study completed by Dawkins et al. (2002) found that more hens went out into the range during the late afternoon and evening, typically 10, 11, and 12 hours after the door opened, and suggested that hens may benefit from having access to the outdoors even later in the day, especially during the summer (p. 155). We believe that there needs to be further research to determine the optimal duration of outdoor access and the most effective times of day during which to provide that access, and that implemented requirements should reflect the findings of that research.

Other important aspects of free-range farms that need to be regulated are the types of materials used in the outdoor habitats and the provision of opportunities for enrichment. Based on the findings of the study completed by Dawkins et al. (2002), USDA guidelines should limit the use of materials such as concrete in the range areas and should require that provided space is comprised mainly of grasses, trees, and shrubs. As discussed earlier, hens prefer to utilize habitats that provide shade and shelterbelts, and in order to further ensure the use of range areas, increase flock dispersal, and minimize levels of hen aggression and cannibalization, the USDA should require that a minimum percentage of the outdoor environment contains vegetation and shade structures. In order to guarantee that certified “free-range” eggs come from systems that are truly more ethical than those that produce unlabeled eggs, farms seeking free-range certification must be held to specific and quantifiable minimum standards.

Strict standards on laying hen housing structures have already been successfully implemented in the European Union (EU), supporting this proposal as a viable course of action. In 1999, the EU passed a directive that banned the use of conventional cage systems for laying hens and presented requirements to be met in the remaining enriched cages and non-cage systems, dictating the houses’ minimum size, maximum stocking density, and necessary provision of amenities such as perches and food troughs (Appleby, 2003). Producers previously utilizing conventional cage systems were allowed until January 2012 to fully transition away from the use of conventional cages, while the minimum requirements for enriched cages were met by January 2002 and those for non-cage systems were met by January 2007 (Appleby, 2003, p. 169). As producers shifted away from conventional cage systems, the average annual market price for eggs in all EU countries rose from 113.21 euros per 100 kilograms in 2008 to 128.89 euros per 100 kilograms in 2015 (roughly 120 USD to 137 USD per 220 lbs)(European Commission, 2010). The year 2012 did see a fairly significant price increase of 47.29 euros (50 USD) from the previous year, however the price then dropped 33.4 euros (35 USD)  in 2013 and remained nearly identical for the next two years (European Commission, 2010). This ban and implementation of requirements was successful, and did not significantly impact consumer costs (save for the year of most transition). With this in mind, it should be entirely feasible to implement and enforce regulations for the management of free-range systems in the United States without unreasonably harmful impacts.

More Strict Regulations = Better Chicken Health and Welfare

With the introduction of specific and meaningful free-range certification requirements, chickens will more consistently be able to reap the health and welfare benefits which well-managed free-range systems are able to provide. In addition to a wide-scale increase in chicken welfare, consumers will be able to have increased trust in the information they are provided and in the true ethicality of their options. This change has the potential to impact a very significant number of people; a 2007 survey found that 68% of consumers are interested in the welfare of animals before their products reach the grocery store shelves (Mitchell, 2011, p. 2). It is understood that systems in need of modifications take time to transform and meet new requirements, and the timeline for the implementation of requirements will reasonably reflect that. The allowance for gradual change will allow producers to fund system changes through smaller increases in profit margin accumulated over a stretch of time, avoiding significant price increases for consumers, as supported by the slight and reasonable price increase seen in the European Union. System adjustments by producers who already possess free-range certification should not hinder their business significantly as many systems may already have outdoor space available and all producers will have a reasonable amount of time to make any changes which are necessary in order to meet the new requirements.

Concern over price increases can also be addressed through the economic principle of supply and demand. Many consumers want to make ethical choices, and with consumers’ increased confidence in the ethical nature of free-range eggs it is likely that a number of producers will convert to free-range systems in an attempt to capture that consumer interest.  With few farms present in the free-range egg market, each individual farm can charge higher prices because of the great demand in comparison to supply. With an increase in free-range producers, consumers will be further protected against unreasonable price increases as suppliers remain in competition with one another, and may even see price decreases after the initial transition period. This principle is the same as that which Sam Oches, a trade publication editor, argues will help fast food chains keep their management costs and product prices low as they transition to cage-free and free-range systems (Chaussee, 2016).

Ultimately, we are only requesting that those who wish to retain their free-range certification do more to ensure the quality of their systems. The overall cost increase should not be significant, especially as current free-range producers will not need to make any significant adjustments to their indoor housing structure. The new requirements simply require that producers ensure an easily accessible and advantageous range environment, providing consumers with a product which actually meets their expectations. If producers are to continue marketing free-range eggs as a more humane alternative to traditionally raised eggs, then the USDA must be required to protect consumers’ rights to accurate information by enforcing stricter regulations for the management of free-range housing systems.


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Chaussee, J. (2016, January 25). The Insanely Complicated Logistics of Cage-Free Eggs for All. Retrieved from

Dawkins, M. S., Cook, P.A., Whittingham, M. J., Mansell, K.A., Harper A. E. (2002). What makes free-range broiler chickens range? In situ measurement of habitat preference. Department of Zoology University of Oxford. doi: 10.1006/anbe.2003.2172

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Nagle, T. A. D., & Glatz, P. C. (2012). Free range hens use the range more when the outdoor environment is enriched. Asian – Australasian Journal of Animal Sciences, 25(4), 584-591. doi:

Sherwin, Dr. C. M., Richards, G.J., & Nicoi, C.J. (2010). Comparison of the welfare of layer hens in 4 housing systems in the UK. British Poultry Science 51(4), 488-99. doi 10.1080/00071668.2010.502518

Shimmura, T., Hirahara, S., Azuma, T., Suzuki, T., Eguchi, K., Uetake, K., & Tanaka, T. (2010). Multi-factorial investigation of various housing systems for laying hens. British Poultry Science 51(1), 31-42. doi 10.1080/00071660903421167

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Yilmaz, D. B., İpek, A., Şahan, Ü., Petek, M., & Sözcü, A. (2016). Egg production and welfare of laying hens kept in different housing systems (conventional, enriched cage, and free range). Poultry Science 95(7), 1564-72. doi: 10.3382/ps/pew082



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