During the past two decades there has been an increased demand for free-range farming practices in the poultry industry. This was the result of people learning of the cramped spaces and diseases that occurred on some farms where chickens were farmed in conventional batteries.
Although the lack of space for chickens in battery cages cannot be denied, the occurrence of diseases can be effectively prevented through sound management and bio-security principles. The term Free-Range cannot be used loosely in order for farmers to appeal to the consumer’s market.
According to the European Union, eggs or meat offered for sale as free-range must be from flocks that are kept in the following conditions:
1. The hens must have continuous daytime access to open-air runs.
2. The ground to which hens have access must be mainly covered with vegetation.
3. The maximum stocking should not exceed 1 000 birds/hectare (or 1 bird/10 m2). There are also some additional regulations that must be met with regards to the housing if chickens are kept indoors in a barn for example.
The question is how this influences the profitability of a poultry farm. There are two main areas of poultry farming that are influenced by the free-range method. First of all, the initial capital needed to start a poultry farm using free-range chickens is a fraction of the cost of setting up a conventional chicken farm. Less equipment is needed, and therefore the initial costs are much lower.
Secondly, it can increase the value of your product, but only if you market it to the right crowd. In some cases, there will not be a significant difference in the price of free-range chicken and eggs as opposed to the conventional products. It is important to do the market research before you decide which method will suit you best. Even if the demand for free-range products are not that high in your area, you will still be able to save start-up costs by choosing a free-range production system.
The biggest disadvantage of a freerange production system is a lower rate of production and higher feed costs. Due to the fact that the chickens will spend a lot of energy moving around and foraging, there is less energy available for growth. In order to achieve the same growth rates as conventional production systems, the farmer will need to increase the quantity of feed per chicken per day.
A second disadvantage is the fact that free-range chickens tend to have a higher mortality rate, especially if they are kept in a pen where they are more exposed to the elements, or where predators can get to them. This can be managed by ensuring that the chickens stay indoors when it is cold and by making sure that no predator can reach the chickens.
Farmers need to carefully consider whether a free-range production system will work for their particular poultry farms. In the case of a farmer who wants to start a poultry farming business, a lot of the initial capital investment can be saved through a free-range production system. Existing commercial chicken farms might not be able to switch to a free-range system without an impact on their production figures.
Do the research and find out which option will work the best for your chicken farm.