Free Run, Free Range, Cage Free-What Does It All Mean?

If you don’t have access to fresh eggs from a farmer, who you know and trust to have raised that product in a way you’re comfortable with, what is your next best option?
Grocery stores and their providing companies have cunningly come up with marketing tactics to make you believe the egg you purchase is coming from a chicken that lives a pastoral life of scratching and foraging on green, open pastures. But just because the carton says “Free-run“, doesn’t mean the chicken lived any better life than one in a cage. Let’s look at the different labels you’ll find in the grocery store, and what they really mean:

Standard Eggs

(Just your regular old egg, with no claims other than size and grade)

These eggs are laid by chickens kept in “battery cages“. They are essentially a 12″x12” box, with no room for the chicken to exercise her natural tendencies: scratching, preening, roosting and nesting. Birds in these situations often have their beaks trimmed to prevent feather picking- a natural tendency for chickens when they are bored or kept too close together.

A recent publication produced by the Ontario Farm Animal Council has this to say about laying hens:

“Laying hens in Canada are mostly raised in cages. Modern laying hens are descended from jungle fowl, which used to live in small groups under tree roots. This means it is natural for hens to want to live closely together with other birds, and small enclosed spaces- reminiscent of those ancient tree roots- make hem feel safe and protected….

With mesh floors, their waste falls away, keeping the birds and eggs clean. It’s practical and clean housing system that offers other benefits to the birds and farmers, and affordable eggs to consumers.”

If I even began to tell you all the things wrong with just these two paragraphs, well we’d be here for a long time. I can tell you right now though, that although I may be a descendant of someone who once lived in a cave and cooked over a fire, I have no desire today, to live in a cave or cook over a fire. (At least not every day anyway!)

Chickens do enjoy sleeping closely together, but they do not enjoy spending their days crammed up like sardines. I’ve spent many many hours watching my chickens, of all different breeds, socialize with one another, and I can tell you there is nothing they love more than wandering and foraging, often all alone, or in small groups of 3 or so. They definitely do not huddle close together under a bush.

As for the wire floors, can you imagine how comfortable that would be to stand on all day? And when it comes to cleanliness, chickens are perfectly capable of keeping themselves clean given the space to preen and dust-bathe. Eggs are also easily kept clean if the nesting boxes are kept clean. Not to mention, commercially produced eggs are washed in chlorine solutions, stripping them of the natural protective coating God gave them (this coating is called the “bloom”).

Alright, I could go on for ever about this, but for the sake of this article, we’ll move on.

Free-run/Cage Free eggs:

These chickens live in large open barns, usually with access to nesting boxes, but not always, and are not required to provide dust baths or perches. There are also no requirements for the hens to have any more floor space than they would in battery cages. I think this is the most green-washed option out there.

Free-Range Eggs:

The same as above, but usually with dust baths and perches. They are also provided with access to out doors at least some of the time– But there’s no regulations on how long that time is. It may be an hour or less!

It’s important to note with both free-run and free-range eggs produced in large capacity barns, that unless certified organic there are no third-party verifications!

So what other options do you have? Some people would argue the being certified organic is not that important, and there are many cases when I would agree with that, but for eggs, I do believe being certified is very important! Certified organic eggs are required to provide nesting boxes, perches, dust baths, and regulated outdoor time. Organic barns are audited regularly, and standards are high and very strict. This makes it more difficult and costly to produce organic eggs, but for the sake of an animals quality of life- It’s worth it!!

I am able to raise my chickens in a way that is truly free-range. The girls go outside, unrestricted all day long. I’ve lost a lot of lettuce and geraniums (and also some chickens) but the girls are so happy having this freedom. They go in to a nice secure coop on their own every night to keep them safe from predators.

Not everyone is able to do this though, because of high predation, but there’s still a huge difference between the chicken runs of a small scale farmer compared to that of a massive barn.

If you’re unable to purchase eggs directlly, I hope this sheds some light on your other options!

Linking to:

Frugal Days, Sustainable Ways #30

Teach Me Tuesdays


6 thoughts on “Free Run, Free Range, Cage Free-What Does It All Mean?

  1. Pingback: Gettting rid of Styrofoam egg cartons | Attempting zero waste lifestyle in a military household

  2. Pingback: Europe’s ethical eggs A ban on battery cages for hens that was adopted in 1999 has finally been implemented throughout the European Union. |

  3. Reblogged this on Plowing in Pearls and commented:

    *chirp…chirp…chirp* Yep, that’s the sound of crickets around here! We’ve had a super busy week, and I haven’t had much free time to write a new post. I thought instead, that I would share one of the blogs most viewed posts instead. It’s very relevant and important information for those who are unable to purchase eggs directly from a farmer. Enjoy this older post, and hopefully I’ll have a little free time towards the end of the week to get some new stuff up 🙂

  4. Thank you for this post, Marie! We have a small family farm down the road from us and I love to purchase my eggs from them. Their hens are truly free-range.

    We are closing on our new home soon, and I PRAY fervently that I can raise chickens and other small farm animals. The problem is the land is mostly wooded at this time, and I am almost for certain that there is a large amount of predators. We live in Maine and we have lots of animals in the woods that would love to feast on chickens 😦 Going to keep praying. I love visiting your blog because it gets me so inspired and motivated to start a small farm one day! What are your recommended resources for the newbie?

    • Jenn, thank you for stopping by! I know it’s not possible for many people to completely free-range. We’re lucky being surrounded by fields, it tends to keep the predators down, but when we do get a brave coyote, the carnage is devastating. There are some really great ideas for covered runs that would allow you to have chickens AND keep them safe.
      The Hobby Farm magazine puts out some great special Chicken publications that I found very useful when getting started. Also check out for all kinds of information. But above all, the greatest resource for a newbie is to have someone experienced they can talk to!
      I really hope that helps and that you do get the opportunity to keep chickens one day. They are so therapeutic 🙂

  5. This is fantastic, thank you. I wasnt 100 percent sure on the variations herein and it is very important to me that the hens that lay my eggs are treated humanely. What I usually do is buy organic UNLESS the free-range option specifically says on the box that they are allowed to perch, peck, etc, which some companies are now promising right inside the box (lift up the box and see if they’ve written anything inside). And many will offer a glimpse of the chickens on their websites as well. Even better, sometimes I can buy right off the farm where i can see and meet the chickens themselves! But if Im buying in the store, I usually go organic, and this article has helped underscore why. Thanks and Im going to share this on facebook. 🙂


I love hearing from you and read (and try to respond to) every comment. Thank-you for taking the time to write one! "Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, so that it will give grace to those who hear." Ephesians. 4:29

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