Free-Range Chicken Flock: Humane Enough?

by Mary on July 10, 2012

speckled hens in a field

speckled hens

What was I thinking? I was buying eggs from this beautiful free range flock of chickens, and then I just….. stopped. Why? They don’t lay much in the winter, maybe I forgot about them when spring rolled around. Or maybe I just got lazy, stopped calling and asking the owners to save eggs for me and making appointments to pick them up.

But I should have known. The only eggs of equal quality I’ve ever were from friends’ flocks of pet chickens. Which is basically what these birds are. Pets on a hobby farm that includes a shifting cast of animals, currently a cat, dogs, mini horses, geese, and ducks.

Now I’ve realized that the Trader Joe’s free range organic eggs that I started buying instead were not very humane or nutritious. I knew that they were not as yellow, the yolks not as firm. I knew the farm eggs were better, but I didn’t think deeply about it. In the US the industrial food system is always trying to creep in and cut corners on our food. It never pays to stop paying attention.

You can see that these birds are grazing on a highly natural and nutritious diet…. chunks of white bread. The owners called them in with the bread so I could take their picture. They are quite the variety, cute little Frizzles, big fluffy Orpingtons, four or five handsome roosters including this proud silver one (and note the brown Frizzle in front):

silver rooster, white hen, and brown fuzzy hen in field

handsome silver rooster and a cute brown Frizzle

I was asked (again) if I wanted a few, apparently they breed like crazy at this time of year. But the little town where I live is very restrictive about chickens. You can’t keep them unless you have more than an acre. Not like Seattle where you can have three hens (and a mini-goat) anywhere in the city you want. Too bad. I’d love to take a few home, but my homeowner’s association hates me enough already. I always appreciated chickens: I used to study the pictures of the different breeds of chickens in my World Book encyclopedia when I was a girl and spend hours drawing them.

So is a chicken flock like this humane enough to be ethical? It depends on your standards. These are fancy chickens that at some point originated from a hatchery, and I can’t know how humanely the rooster chicks were dispatched. That’s a deal-breaker for vegans. I don’t want to be a party to baby chicks suffocated or ground up alive, but I can hope that the hatchery for fancy chickens may be small-scale enough to be humane. In our poorly regulated system, there’s never an end to the investigation that you could and maybe should do about your food.

I prefer that that the chickens be born and raised on the farm, avoiding the hatchery issue.  Even if the roosters are raised to be broilers, that seems better than being dispatched at birth. Eggs and dairy milk present similar issues for vegetarians, they are both wrapped up with meat production.

As far as older birds who have stopped laying, people in this area seem to have good success finding new homes for their older chickens. There are groups here that can help you re-home your chickens, apparently they are wanted for purposes like weeding gardens. I haven’t asked what happens to the older birds in this flock. But I know that the egg sales just offset the cost of their feed: they really are mostly pets. (Update: once a year the extra roosters are sold at a local farm auction)

Here are the eggs I bought from this flock, almost as beautiful as the birds themselves:

free range chicken eggs in cartons, some brown and some blue-green

free range chicken eggs including some blue-green Araucana ones

See how the yolks of these eggs look compared to Trader Joe’s Organic Free Range eggs here.

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Ivy July 12, 2012 at 3:09 pm

I wish I could have a yard to raise some chickens on day.
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mary July 17, 2012 at 1:58 pm

Me too! Several of my friends have had chickens and I’ve enjoyed visiting them (and the occasional gift of eggs).


Philip Westwood July 17, 2012 at 5:48 am

There is so much deception from major corporations which claim to be producing free range eggs. It’s hard to decide what to buy!


mary July 17, 2012 at 1:56 pm

It certainly has complicated things to have major corporations moving into organic. It’s not always possible to visit the farm, but it sure is nice when you can!


Ayngelina July 23, 2012 at 6:10 pm

I’m also trying to find a better place to buy eggs, the real ones are SO much better it’s incomparable.
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mary September 9, 2012 at 2:03 am

Yup. Sometimes it takes some looking to find a good source.
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laurie October 15, 2012 at 6:21 am

This summer we bought 20 indexed chickens and have eaten most of the roosters. In the summer we can’t let them free range as they eat our garden. In the fall winter and spring we usually let them free range. This year we are having a bit of a problem as our dog isn’t chicken friendly and has been caught more than once with Lucky our 15 year old banty rooster in his mouth.

We have thought from time to time about selling eggs but it is hard to make a profit or even break even as the feed is so expensive. My husband loves chickens so it is his hobby.


mary October 15, 2012 at 6:33 am

Thanks for commenting, Laurie! What are indexed chickens? Dogs are tough on gardens– and I guess chicken flocks, too, at times! The people I get the eggs from say that selling the eggs pretty much pays for the feed.


Vince Gawler Vet May 31, 2013 at 11:58 am

Indeed, the only true source of organic eggs would be the ones that you know were raised in real “free-range” mode. Commercial “free-range” are dubious.


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