Many South African consumers are beginning to factor in the welfare of animals as well as the conditions in which they were raised when making purchasing decisions on what to animal products to purchase. While this is happening across board, the requirements are more intensive in the South African poultry industry even though the country still doesn’t have a national standard for free range or organic poultry farming.
Many farmers are interpreting the term “free range” quite liberally in the absence of any well defined or legislated national standards on factors such as the indoor and outdoor stocking density of the poultry, the right kind of feed to provide, medication etc.
Caged birds still make the bulk of South African poultry produce and imports but there is a fast-growing subset of free-range poultry products which are becoming quite popular with buyers. Many believe that these products come from chickens that have been raised in a more humane environment.
There are consumers who are even boycotting meat and eggs from caged birds and going exclusively for the free-range chicken products. South African retail chains are responding to this growing demand and increasingly reserving more shelf space for free-range chicken products including meat and eggs. Case in point is Woolworths South Africa.
Why Free Range is Better than Caged Production Model
On the surface, egg production from caged layers seems like a profitable and highly efficient poultry production system and it is. Farmers using this mode of production still produce most of our eggs locally at a fairly low cost of production. While the recent drought and feed shortages have put some pressure on the industry, it is still a highly efficient production system.
However, the conditions in which these birds produce eggs is not always humane. They are raised in an environmentally controlled environment where their only purpose is to eat and lay eggs. They are like egg laying machines. This is generally done in a very tiny space that is barely the size of an A4 paper. Some farmers use antibiotics indiscriminately in order to improve the productivity of the chicken in the cage environment.
In some cages, the chickens do not even have the room to turn around once they have grown fully. The result is that the chickens grow to adulthood without having had the opportunity to express their natural behavior such as foraging, scratching the soil, perching etc.
Chickens raised in a barn environment fare on slightly better depending on the farmer’s stocking density. If the conditions are good, they will have the room to move about and express a bit of their natural behavior.
While most farmers consider the barn-based environment as “free range”, it is not sufficiently so and with proper legislation and standards, these chickens may not be considered free range unless the farmer provides reasonable access to the outdoors for a designated number of hours per day via peepholes. Still, in some countries such as Australia, barn-raised chickens are often considered as free range. Many South African farmers who use the barn system also label their chickens as free-range products.
However, true free-range poultry production is when the chickens are allowed access to the outdoors and given a well managed outdoor range in which the chickens can forage and feed on the grass, legumes, worms, and grubs to supplement their formulated poultry diet.
Farmers typically house the chickens in an overnight shed or a mobile chicken coop at night. During the day, they are let out into the pasture to express as much of their natural behavior as possible. Feeders and drinkers can be strategically positioned in the range so that the chickens can easily access the food and water.
In this kind of environment, the chickens will grow happier and healthier and the chicken products would be a lot more healthy and nutritious. A lot of tests have shown that free range eggs and meat is generally of a better quality. Due to the absence of any national standards in South Africa, produce grown in very diverse conditions are generally classified as “free range”.
Time Constraints Involved in Free Range Chicken Farming
Free range chicken farming requires a very hands-on approach. You can expect to succeed in this system as an absentee farmer. You must have a hands-on approach to managing affairs in your free-range farm so as to give your chickens a happier and healthy life. You will need to ensure you are adhering to the requisite welfare standards for a free range production system as specified by the various retailers in South Africa who are the key buyers. Free range chicken farming requires a significant time investment on your part in order to make it a success. When you invest more time in raising your chickens in the outdoor range, you will find this experience highly rewarding.
Make Sure You Understand the Local Market and Trading Laws
Make sure you are familiar the laws required for poultry farming in South Africa. Apart from acquiring the required health certifications, there isn’t much you will grapple with because we do not have any national standards that you must adhere to.
Make sure you understand the local marketplace where you will be selling your poultry. If you are targeting a saturated market, you are going to have a hard time selling your poultry.
Invest in proper marketing strategies that will help in pushing your poultry to your customers or buyers. Have a list of target buyers and send them a brochure of your farm listing the range of poultry products you are selling as well as your unique selling point.
Pasture plays an important role in a free range chicken production system. The range provides an outdoor space where the chickens get an opportunity to fully express their behavior. It also provides nourishment for the chickens. The pasture can supplement the existing formulated poultry feed and provide the chicken with rare nutrients.
Having good pasture will relieve the demand for the supplementary feeds that your poultry need. Make sure that you have a good and well-maintained pasture with lots of perennials such as ryegrass and clover to offer the best nourishment for your chickens.
It is also important to incorporate proper pasture management techniques that will ensure your chickens always have access to fresh grass and reduce incidences of diseases. To get the best out of the pasture, release your chickens to roam about here in the middle third of the growth period of the pasture.
Don’t let your chickens loose on the pasture too early on as the pasture is likely to take a lot longer to regrow. The regrowth may also be substandard if you let the chickens out to forage too early on.
If you let the pasture grow for too long, it will be past its best shape and the chickens may not make full use of it and derive the necessary nutrients from the pasture. The best strategy is to employ pasture rotation or mobile coops that allow you to move the poultry from one part of the range to another. This prevents the poultry from overgrazing and gives the grazed pasture an opportunity to regrow and provide future nourishment for your chickens. Efficient pasture management techniques will help you save money on the cost of feeding of your poultry.