We’ve recently been receiving inquiries about whether or not there is a “free range” requirement for animals in the Certified Humane® program. We think it’s important to explain what our standards are and the reasoning behind them.
The purpose of this program is to improve the lives of farm animals being raised for food. Our standards require that all ruminants (cattle, sheep and goats) be outdoors on pasture.
Most poultry are raised in barns because of weather. Chickens raised for meat (broiler chickens) live between 6 and 8 weeks of age. They can’t go out until they have full feathers, which is around 4 weeks of age. If the farm is in the Northern part of the US or in Canada, at best, the weather would allow for animals to go out for 3 or 4 months, and maybe one or two flocks would get to go out for two weeks, assuming it is not raining or very windy. For laying hens, they live longer, but you have the same issues of weather.
Those programs that require “outdoor access” always have the caveat “weather permitting.” None of those programs requiring “outdoor access” have any standards for poultry for the time when they are not accessing the outdoors. So when these laying hens and chickens are in their barns for 9-10 months of the year, there are no space requirements, clean air requirements, dust-bathing requirements and none of the needs of the birds are being met. We thought that it was more important for the birds to have their needs met all year long. We do have strict requirements for free range and pasture based poultry in our standards and there are many Certified Humane® poultry farmers that met these strict standards on our program.
When we wrote our standards, it was important to us to make sure that the needs of the birds were met, whether they were indoors or outdoors. The purpose of this program is to improve the lives of farm animals being raised for food. We wrote our standards to meet the needs of laying hens, which are, clean air (we require less than 10 parts per million (ppm) of ammonia in barns. This means if you can smell it, it is too much). Hens need to perch because that is what they do and it is also a way for them to get away from other hens that annoy them (more aggressive hens). Hens like to dust-bathe. Dust-bathing is important to them because it protects their feathers and is a natural thing for them to do. The hens need space.
Therefore, our standards include sections for both barn raised and free-range birds. For barn raised birds, they must have adequate space, for example 1.5 sq. ft/bird (which is defined), they must have dust-bathing material, perches, nest boxes, and high air quality so that there is not even a whiff of ammonia. All of these standards are written with specific numbers and measures and are inspected. For “free range” producers on our program, there are range requirements, space requirements, range rotation, management, predator protection, etc.
Pigs can be raised indoors as well as outdoors as long as they meet our minimum space requirements, which allow them to express natural behaviors and to move around freely. Gestating sows are not allowed to be kept in narrow gestation stalls in which they cannot move or turn around. Farrowing pigs are not allowed in farrowing pins, where they cannot move freely either. The air must be clear of ammonia and the pigs must have a clean, dry resting area.
One of the complications of raising pigs outdoors is environmental. A natural behavior of pigs is to root and when they do that, they tear up the fields. Unless a farmer has enough land to rotate pastures, they will put nose rings on the pigs to keep them from rooting up the fields.
The nose rings cause pain every time a pig tries to root, which is what pigs do. It is their natural behavior. It would be as if we had an artificial device on our faces that caused us pain every time we tried to smile. When pigs are raised outdoors, they root in the fields. Rooting is normal behavior for pigs. In order to raise pigs outdoors, there needs to be adequate space, pasture management plans and rotationally moving the pigs from pasture to pasture at different times of the year. If there Is not enough pasture, or good pasture management, or rotational grazing methods are not used, the farmer has bare areas instead of vegetation. Farmers put nose rings on pigs to prevent them from rooting and therefore they don’t have to manage the ground, the vegetation or the pigs. We have space requirements and do not allow nose rings. Nose rings do nothing to benefit the pig.
Cows, both dairy and beef, goats and sheep have an outdoor pasture requirement because they are ruminant animals and must be able to eat grasses and roughage in order to digest their foods. These animals digest mechanically as opposed to chemically which is how people digest food.
For specifics on each species, read our standards. They are on our website at: http://www.certifiedhumane.org/index.php?page=standards
It is not easy for farmers to meet these standards. We wrote the standards to meet the real needs of the animals, not perceived needs. They are actually the highest animal welfare standards for animals in food production. These standards make a real difference and improve the lives of the farm animals on our program.