There has been a growing interest in free-range poultry farming in developed countries in recent years, owing to welfare concerns associated with intensive poultry farming.
Birds should be free of hunger, thirst, discomfort, pain, injury, disease, fear, and distress to achieve the “best positive welfare outcome.”
When allowed to roam freely, the birds exhibit high vigor, a dense and strong feather cover, and warm red combs and wattles. Birds show typical signs of tranquility and comfort, such as dusting and solar bathing, stretching wings, and cleaning and preening their beaks.
Free-range eggs and meat are produced by flocks that are kept in the following conditions:
- The hens must have continuous access to open-air runs during the day.
- The area to which hens have access must be largely vegetated.
- The maximum stocking density should not exceed 1,000 birds per hectare (400 birds per acre or one bird per a tenth of a hectare).
The inside of the building must conform to one of the following standards:
- Barn, with a minimum perch space of 15 cm for each bird and a maximum stocking density of 25 birds/m2.
- Deep litter, with at least one-third of the floor area covered in litter such as straw, wood shavings, sand, or turf, and a sufficient portion of the floor area available to the hens for bird dropping collection.
Housing for Free Range Chickens
Farmers typically house their flocks in barns or aviaries with pop-hole access for the birds to fly. Outdoors, water is commonly available.
Numerous farms have wire mesh grates installed in front of the pop-holes to reduce the amount of dirt carried back into the sheds.
Litter, perches, and nest boxes are available in the fixed sheds. Paddock rotation is not a common practice, though some farms employ electric fences to provide rotation. Certain regions employ portable sheds. These structures house 100–500 birds and are towed around a paddock once or twice a week on a moveable sled. Droppings can fertilize the area through wire floors.
Breeds for Free Range Chicken production
A free-range layer should have healthy body weight and adequate egg production at the start of lay. These birds reproduce and survive in some of the most adverse environmental conditions imaginable.
Modern strains can be successfully raised in a free-range environment with a slightly reduced summer lay rate. Local breeds produce fewer eggs and grow at a slower pace. Apart from that, there is a healthy market for meat and eggs from indigenous breeds.
Breed selection for disease resistance is critical for free-range production. Free-range birds have a higher feed conversion rate, a full plumage, and are less prone to stress. Selecting against susceptibility to stress and feather pecking is necessary for a breeding program that requires data collection. Selection should take place in an environment that is as close to the production environment as possible.
The selection process should incorporate proven testing procedures to optimize egg number, shell color, and strength.
Free Range Chickens Management
Due to the uncontrolled environmental conditions, managing free-range birds requires additional labor. When the ambient temperature drops, feed intake increases as the free-range layer requires more energy to stay warm.
Additionally, it was reported that during the winter, for every one °C drop in temperature below the optimal level, a laying bird would require an additional 4.2 calories. As the temperature rises, the egg weight and shell thickness decrease due to decreased energy and protein intake.
For free-range birds, especially in hot weather, water temperature should be monitored. This can be accomplished by flushing the drinker lines regularly, keeping the incoming water lines out of direct sunlight, insulating water lines, and shading water storage tanks.
If the water is too hot, birds will drink less, resulting in decreased feed consumption and egg production. During the summer, birds may be unable to maintain a comfortable temperature in their shelter. Foggers can be used in shaded areas or in trees to circumvent this issue.
The orientation and spacing of buildings are also critical factors in reducing the overall heat load.
Nest boxes For Free Range Poultry
The nest boxes should be placed lower than the perches and, in the shelter’s darkest area, to attract them. Nest boxes should be elevated above ground level to avoid eggs being laid on the floor.
This system mitigates the effects of endoparasites, such as coccidial infection. Specific farms use a single paddock for 12 weeks before rotating to the next paddock.
Eliminating cages increases cannibalism. While free-range systems allow for greater natural behavior expression, vices such as feather pecking, cannibalism, and mislaid eggs remain a problem. Under free-range conditions, beak trimming is necessary to prevent feather pecking and cannibalism. The use of plastic slats throughout the house significantly reduces the risk of feather pecking.
Feeding Free Range Chickens
In natural habitats, the fowl’s diet is highly varied, consisting of seeds, fruits, herbage, and invertebrates. In a free-range environment, birds can choose a diet that meets all of their nutritional requirements.
Birds have a high capacity for consuming weed seeds and pests, advantageous in a crop/animal rotation system. However, toxic plants and seeds on the range, such as vetch (Vicia benghalensis), canary grass (Phalaris arundinacea), heliotrope (Heliotropium Indicum), and ironweed, may contribute to poor performance (Vernonia noveboracensis). Birds should avoid land that poisonous plants have contaminated.
Chicks in their first week of life have a low-fat utilization rate. Vegetable oils like soybean or canola oil have limited application. Due to the development of insoluble soaps with minerals, the inclusion of palm oil and animal fats in the diet can reduce the uptake of essential elements (e.g., Ca, P) and many trace elements.
The diet should be palatable and high in digestible carbohydrates during the first few weeks. Maize is a good carbohydrate source. In the paddock, grit should be available to stimulate early gizzard development.
The growing stage
The diet’s energy content is critical during the post-chick feeding stage, especially during the ten weeks preceding lay. It is crucial to maintain an optimal stocking density to ensure that all birds have access to feeders and drinkers to avoid uneven growth.
Avoid low-energy diets for six to fifteen weeks. Enzymes added to free-range poultry rations may improve energy utilization efficiency, particularly when a high fiber is consumed from foraging pastures.
Pre-lay to early lay
This is a critical period, and many free-range birds are harmed by inadequate pre-lay nutrition. Calcium is essential for medullary bone formation, but only 2% is recommended for pre-lay diets. It was discovered that increasing calcium to 3% in the pre-lay diet had no effect on bone development and that an excess of calcium can have a detrimental effect on feed intake. Oyster shell is an excellent calcium source for limestone granules. The rate at which limestone dissolves in solution is too rapid to maintain optimal blood calcium levels over an extended period.
Compared to intensively housed chickens, free-range chickens have a higher mortality rate, particularly during the first 6 to 8 weeks of life. The disease is a significant factor in increased mortality.
Pathogens are more likely to infect free-range chickens and their eggs than caged birds and their eggs. Although these chickens are susceptible to metabolic diseases common in intensively kept birds, environmental conditions can influence their severity and predispose the birds to syndromes uncommon in caged layers.
The Diseases can be transmitted to free-range chickens by older flocks, wild birds, and drinking from the paddock water.
To protect free-range poultry to the fullest extent possible, all vaccines should be used. These include Infectious Bronchitis, Newcastle Disease, Egg Drop Syndrome (transmitted by wild ducks into water), Infectious Laryngotracheitis, Cholera (which is transmitted by wild ducks), Coryza, Marek’s disease, and Fowl Pox. Additional strategies include the following:
- the frequent rotation of free-range birds to prevent parasite buildup
- separating young birds from older ones
- confinement rearing chicks for the first eight weeks of their lives.
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