The term is most commonly used to refer to turkeys, chickens and ducks that are allowed to roam and forage for their feed out of doors, rather than being raised via the “factory farm” processes implemented to mass produce birds in crowded, lightless conditions.
While it is unnatural for any bird to be contained in the manner of commercial poultry suppliers, the conditions presented by the factory farm are especially at odds with the requirements of ducks. Roughly twenty-two million ducks are raised annually in the US with no access to water for bathing. Ducks are aquatic creatures which, when given the option, play, socialize, and sleep as often on water as out of it.
Factory farming of poultry can be particularly harmful not only to the animals, but to the people whose grocery stores these producers supply, as well as those who live in a close proximity to the farms themselves. “Chicken houses” can encompass as much ground as a football field, and house up to 25,000 birds at a time. These highly engineered birds – designed to reach slaughter age at a staggeringly brief six weeks of age for chickens, fourteen weeks for turkeys – are increasingly susceptible to disease, and their crowded conditions make the threat of outbreak stronger still. Birds are generally considered the largest threat as a transmitter of zoonotic viruses, or viruses that can be contracted from animals by humans.
The selection criteria for poultry in the modern era of production has favored exaggerated, accelerated development of the most profitable divisions of the birds' anatomy, especially the breast. The close confines and limited mobility of factory farmed chickens and turkeys has almost totally eclipsed the traditional priorities of soundness, docility, and imperviousness to disease. Skeletal problems – frankly, a frame that can't support the excessive burden of the fast-developing bodyweight – and poorly developed organs, especially the lung and heart, mean an early death for many of these birds.
In the free-range situation, a healthier animal is paramount. The often demonized method of debeaking, which is an unfortunate requirement of the factory farming method, is nonsensical when birds are expected to forage. Additionally, it is infrequently a problem in the less crowded conditions provided by free-range techniques; not to mention that when temperament is a consideration in breeding programs, the “cannibalistic” pecking behavior that necessitates debeaking is far less common. In short, a free-range system doesn't benefit from some of the ugliest practices of the traditional factory farm production system, and they are therefore inherently more rare.
Granted, the nonexistence of strict USDA regulations for free-range certification of poultry producers makes many “free-range” operations only slight more humane than the more widespread methods. However, supporting the entire free-range system in turn gives positive feedback to the limited community that is committed to humane, free-range poultry and egg production.
The relatively new certification process available to growers is the American Humane Free Farmed program. Its more strict requirements and recent implementation mean that availability of certified products is still quite low.
Free-range beef is labeled by the USDA beneath the specification that the animals be given space and the opportunity to graze. While some are skeptical about how much space this actually entails, any one with basic knowledge of the habits of a herd of cattle would know that a herd of cattle expected to reach slaughter weight would require a generous amount of acreage of quality forage. The USDA specifies for its “grass-fed” label that 99% of the animal's feed, in its lifetime, must derive from grazing.
A free-range beef animal is spared months of the “feed lot” environment commonly seen, especially in certain parks of Kansas . In a feed lot, steers and heifers are fed grain and contained in order to achieve the most rapid weight gain possible. In a free range system, while cattle are generally “finished” in a feed lot setting, the majority of their lives are spent in a much more natural manner in a pastured herd.
Product distributed by the Niman Ranch must meet sustainable ranching standards. Sustainable ranching, a term coined by a California rancher and Harvard alum, is designed to protect not only the welfare of the cattle, but the welfare of the environment they are a part of. The practice involves grazing fewer cows on more acres and eliminating pesticides from the range management programs. This ensures the natural longevity of the acreage without fertilizers, and provides a higher quality product: an animal fed naturally (without steroids) on quality feed and grass, grown a few months longer than average, that is free of antibiotics. The feed lot situation encourages the spread of disease and other health problems that free-range cattle, especially those in a sustainable ranching system, are far less prone to.
This is not the only small-scale certification process ensuring humane treatment of animals. Other labels, such as the Natural Beef Co. and Montana Range Brand maintain specifications as well.
There is less progression in other livestock arenas, but as product quality becomes an issue, the movement toward a return to free-range practices is gaining momentum. Pork production is typified by enormous buildings choked by ammonia and noise, wherein thousands of pigs of all ages are raised to adulthood frequently without ever seeing the sun. It surprises many to learn that pigs are among the most naturally clean, intelligent, and friendly animals in the food industry. They are arguably the easiest to house and care for in a free-range operation because of these qualities.
The Niman Ranch sustainable farming extends to pork producers. These pigs raise their young, roam, and forage in grassy pastures for the better part of the year, moved to barns during the most intense winter months. Berkshire Pigs of Iowa , du Breton Farms of Iowa , and others are reliably producing pigs that are raised naturally in a manner that is cohesive to environmental sustainability.
In truth, the average US dairy-farmer is a small operator, with roughly 100 cows. However, large-scale operations certainly exist, and are responsible for an increasing percentage of the dairy product in the US every year.
That said, from the humane approach, the “grass fed” label can be more pertinent to dairy production than the “free range” label. Even most small-scale producers are not commonly grass-fed producers. Starchy, grain-based diets maximize milk production, but are ultimately unhealthy for the dairy animal and the consumer. Like fish, when eating optimally cattle naturally produce chemicals that can be beneficial to human health. In the case of a grass-fed dairy cow, the Omega-3 and CLA (conjugated linoleic acid) content in the resulting milk is two to six times higher than in the product of a grain-fed individual. CLA, like Omega-3, is a “good fat” that optimizes human health.