You have probably heard about free-range and pasture-raised chickens, but there is also a new term, cage-free chickens. Most people can’t recognize the difference between cage-free vs. free-range eggs, so you can wonder whether there are variations in their appearance and nutritious value.
Be aware that it is about terms referring to different levels of laying hens’ welfare standards on the farm. You can determine egg quality based on their diet, living conditions, and activity levels. Let’s check what to expect once you notice particular stamps on egg-package labels.
Cage-free vs. free-range chickens
|Feature||Cage-free chickens||Free-range chickens|
|Space per chicken||1.25 sq ft (0.12 m2)||2 sq ft (0.19 m2)|
|Living conditions||Killing male chicks upon hatching, starving to speed up molt, aggressive behavior||Killing male chicks upon hatching, higher incidence of bacterial and parasitic infections, and reduced stress and aggressive behavior|
|Access to outdoors||Live in an indoor space without access to the outdoors||Limited access to outdoor space|
|Grade A egg price||$2 per dozen||$5 per dozen|
|Meat price||$2 per 1 pound (0.45 kg)||$5 per 1 pound (0.45 kg)|
|Risk of salmonella||Higher||Lower|
|Misconceptions||All are treated with antibiotics and hormones||They are organic without treating with antibiotics and hormones|
What Are Cage-free Eggs?
Cage-free is a new but vague term, although the USDA regulates this way of keeping egg-laying hens. It is impossible to find precise specifications about living conditions necessary for these hens, including access to natural sunlight.
Hens kept this way can move within their indoor living spaces during their production cycle. However, it is confined and tight and implies:
- Lack of outdoor access
- Lack of space to stretch, perch, and dust bathe
- Prevented access to sunlight
- Life in dirty, overcrowded facilities
- Exposure to respiratory diseases
Unlike hens living in a standard 8.50 by 11 inches (21.6 x 28 cm) cage, cage-free sounds like a better solution since each hen has at least 1.25 sq ft (0.12 m2) of floor space. Unfortunately, cage-free facilities offer lower air quality, encourage violence among hens, and often cause bone fractures.
Hens’ living conditions in this system are similar in all farms, but you can recognize a few different accommodation types. Some farmers provide barn-like multi-tier aviaries, allowing hens to go up and down, while others prefer keeping a sizable flock on the barn floor.
The most common system includes approximately 330 feet (100.5 m) long and 80 feet (24.5 m) wide sheds that accommodate about 30,000 hens.
The hard-surfaced floors are covered in wire mesh, slats, or organic litter, like sawdust and rice hulls. Feeders and drinkers are typically in the middle of the barn.
Nest boxes are tilted, allowing eggs to roll onto an attached conveyor belt. Such eggs are labeled cage-free. This system also includes manure belts that automatically remove manure. Farmers use it as a natural fertilizer later.
The primary problem with this way of keeping hens is that thousands live in those aviaries. Their mortality rate is over 10%, or twice as much as in caged birds. The most common reason for fatal outcomes is pecking.
What Are Free-range Eggs?
The free-range term is federally regulated but without the USDA’s detailed guidelines. It goes without saying that these hens should spend at least six hours a day outdoors and have at least 2 sq ft (0.18 m2) of space each. They never spend a minute in the cage and can freely stretch, lay, perch, and dust bathe as desired.
They have unlimited access to fresh water, enough shade during sunny days, and grassy pastures untreated with synthetic pesticides at their disposal. So the theory says. In reality, hens live indoors and can go out and spend time in small fenced-in areas when farmers open the door of their enclosure.
In most cases, this way of keeping hens is the same as cage-free ones. The only difference is the possibility of spending some time outdoors.
Pay attention that hens must have access to free space in the sense that it exists, but some never go outside. In other words, there is a possibility, but everything else depends on the farmer because regulations are unclear and vague.
Luckily, smaller farmers keep free-range chickens the way they can roam freely and peck for extra food during the day. They also have a coop where spending the night safely and comfortably.
Be aware that hens never spend time outside 24/7 because that way of living makes them vulnerable and exposed to lousy weather and predators. In Australia, farmers keep a maximum of 10,000 hens per hectare of land, providing about 12 sq ft (1.1 m2) per one.
In the US, hens spend a few hours in an outdoor range area, which is often fenced and with a coop for staying overnight. Besides, they have nesting boxes for laying eggs. Eggs produced from hens living this way are labeled free-range.
Cage-free vs. Free-range Egg Quality Differences
The USDA has no scientific confirmation of whether there is any nutritional difference between eggs produced by cage-free and free-range hens. In other words, consumers should decide what to choose and which eggs are better for their household without having the correct information.
Be aware that food primarily impacts egg quality. In theory, chickens with the possibility to roam and enrich their food with worms, insects, and grass found outdoors produce eggs with better nutritional value. In reality, the time spent outside the enclosure is limited for most hens and sometimes even questionable.
Some studies show that hens spending time outdoors benefit from sunlight exposure, impacting eggs’ nutritional value. Such eggs also contain higher levels of protein, omega-3 fats, and vitamins A and D. Other research shows these differences rarely affect average consumers.
It is impossible to find official data about the egg quality differences produced by cage-free and free-range hens, but you can notice the obvious, like:
- Free-range hens produce more flavorful eggs with a harder and thicker shell
- Free-range chickens have delicious, less fatty meat compared to grain-fed fowl
- The absence of hormones and excessive antibiotics provide meat healthier for humans
If you are interested in egg quality, you should buy them from local farms. In this case, you can check the food farmers use and choose to cooperate only with those who feed poultry with soy- or GMO-free food and never treat the flock with hormones and antibiotics.
Finally, be aware that the environment significantly affects egg quality. For instance, free-range hens living in a polluted environment provide lower-quality eggs than cage-free ones protected indoors.
Cage-free vs. Free-range Pros and Cons
It is one of the most controversial questions you can ask. For instance, some experts claim that conventional egg farming and keeping hens in cages provide the lowest carbon footprint. Their argument is a higher food and water consumption in cage-free and free-range farming.
On the other hand, pasture-raised chicken keeping is the most sustainable possible. Unfortunately, it is unprofitable for large farmers and an impossible goal in terms of mass consumption.
Both cage-free and free-range ways of keeping can’t entirely reduce hens’ suffering in egg production. However, A Greener World has established the Animal Welfare Approved certification system that offers stricter standards than existing.
Unfortunately, about 85% of eggs produced in the US are graded by following the United Egg Producer certification program. They aim to rebrand the current system as humane instead of setting higher standards for hen treatment.
Cage-free vs. free-range
|Cage-free hens||Free-range hens|
|Hens move freely inside the indoor space||Access to an open area and the possibility to roam freely|
|Increased social interaction in the sizable flock||Increased social interaction in the sizable flock|
|Hens enjoy dust bathing, nesting, and perching||Hens enjoy foraging for food, dust bathing, nesting, and perching|
|Hens are protected from harsh weather and predators||Hens are active and move enough, improving their bone strength|
|An unstable pecking order due to the flock size||Increased exposure to bad weather and predators, including eagles and foxes|
|High possibility of infighting and feather-pecking ending with injuries and possibly lethal outcome||Frequent occurrence of social stresses, infighting, feather pecking, and cannibalism|
|Hens often suffer from manure-borne parasites||Hens often suffer from manure-borne parasites|
|Diagnosis and therapy are challenging in the crowd||High exposure to outside pathogens increases the need for antibiotics and makes biosecurity control challenging|
Remember that the low labor-intensive cage method of keeping hens is the most inexpensive way to produce eggs because they eat less than during free roaming. Since costs are limited in this case, you can expect eggs to be cheap.
On the other hand, more space provided for hens increases egg prices, making pasture-raised eggs costly. As expected, free-range eggs are cheaper than pasture-raised eggs but more expensive than those laid by cage-free kept hens. It is on you to decide between the low price and priceless egg quality.
The USDA often changes requirements regarding eggs and tries to create new criteria for proper chicken egg labeling. Only precise guides tell you what to expect and sometimes mention laying hens’ living conditions.
Often confusion about cage-free vs. free-range hens is unnecessary. The truth is that they are raised in slightly different situations and produce eggs of similar quality.