A Professional Free Run Barn

I was asked about free run eggs again yesterday.  I’ve lost count of how   many people I’ve met who are confused as to what the term means.  Some people think it means living in a situation like Old McDonald used to have….a few hens, scratching in the yard in the daytime, and trooping obediently into a quaint coop (up a ramp, no less!) for the evening.  The farm-wife gathers the dozen eggs or so into her apron before she does the laundry and cooks the meal (Old McDonald wasn’t big on equality).

Unfortunately (or, in many ways, fortunately), this is not reality.  Remember, you city folks want to be able to grab eggs at your convenience, in whatever store you are closest to.  It takes a lot of aprons full of eggs to make that happen.

Hens on perches...red cups are under drinker nipples...feed trough....along the left is the row of nest boxes with red doors

I was in a free run barn a couple of days ago.  I took some pictures to show y’all what it looks like inside a professional free-run barn.  This is a fairly new barn, run by owners who are VERY diligent and innovative.  The barn has a solar powered heat pump gizmo that reduces the amount of propane needed to keep the barn warm, and makes the barn more eco-friendly.  The ventilation is designed to minimize electricity usage, and the design and materials are state of the art….as good as anywhere in the world…..at the risk of being labelled a “chicken geek”, this barn is seriously cool.

This is what the barn looks like...other pics are taken with flash so the birds aren't blurry, but they make the barn look much darker than it is

The barn holds more than 15,000 birds.  This is about average for a free-run barn, and is near the minimum size that makes things like the heat exchanger, computerized ventilation and modern equipment feasible.  The birds have a fair bit of room, plenty of perch space, nest boxes and automatic feeders and waterers.  As you can see in the pictures, however, they choose to “flock together” to what seems an extreme amount.  I see it in most of the barns I’m in….there will be a significant amount of empty barn surrounding a clump of chickens….if we housed them at the density they hang out at, we would be in violation of our code of practice, but since they do it by choice, who is to second guess them?

This is what chickens do, left to their own devices. About half way up the barn, there is a big open space....possibly reserved for bowling...

There is a conveyor belt under the row of nest boxes, and the eggs are carried to the front by this means, so the farmer doesn’t have to get on his hands and knees to reach in each one to grab the eggs…..it also allows him to keep his apron clean, so it will hold more eggs.



Mike the Chicken Vet


6 responses to “A Professional Free Run Barn

  1. Amazing that they do that, isn’t it? It doesn’t fit the image of what we would call here, ‘free range’ at all.

    • True…here “free-range” is a different catagory as well. Free range involves outdoor access (hence the “range” part). In Canada, this has some logistic problems…today it is -21C with the windchill….outside is not a valid option. In Canada, Organic eggs must be free range, so all the free range farms are also organic, since this achieves the greatest premium. Free run systems are indoors, with barn access, and no cages. Again, confusion over terminology is rampant.


  2. Yes, it is confusing. Can you tell me how organic farmers there manage coccidiosis? Do they vaccinate? What rearing methods do they use? Wire bottom brooders? Deep litter? What losses are normal without medication?

    • Yes, most organic farmers vaccinate for coccidiosis. The organic birds are raised on deep litter for the most part, new clean litter for each flock. If there starts to be signs of a challenge, it is helpful to add vinegar to the water to acidify the gut contents and the litter, which slows down the spread of cocci, which gives the pullets a better chance to fight off the infection. Because of the inability to treat, losses seem to be polarized….flocks that are well managed and lucky will have very little losses….maybe 2-3% for the entire 19 week growing period. Those that get the infection will have higher mortality.
      Hope that is helpful,


  3. Thanks Mike. 2-3% seems acceptable. I wondered how they did it. Have you found that using vinegar does effectively acidify the gut? I’ve heard a variety of views on this. Some say that the vinegar in the water isn’t enough to achieve a significant difference as parts of the digestive tract are very acidic anyway. I was speaking to someone involved in pig feed formulations and he said they were adding acid to the digestive system by coating special pellets with something that took a while to dissolve and that’s how they were getting it to the right place without being balanced out before it got there. I’d be interested to know if that isn’t right because vinegar has other effects that are quite useful in a backyard setting, such as keeping algae down in the water. Another thing – I also thought that coccidia survived fine in an acid environment. Is that not true or is that only the oocysts which have the shell around them?

    • You are very well informed. What we are talking about are subtleties. The vinegar actually has small effects on the acidity of the gut itself, but what it does do is acidify the litter as the hen excretes it. This makes the cocci less viable…somewhat. You are right that the oocysts are tougher than cockroaches, and acidified litter helps some, but not completely. I would far rather treat the coccidiosis with an anti-coccidial drug, such as Amprolium, but with organic flocks, this is not possible.
      The different gut acidifying properties of acid are based on their pKa (remember high school chemestry?…me neither). Butyric acid is much more effective, as are other organic acids, since they don’t dissociate in the stomach, and therefore are still available to dissociate in the mid to hind-gut. The conjugation of these acids in the feed formulations is interesting, but right now is fairly early in development….some folks swear by them, others swear at them. Here, we have a product called “Poultry Water Treatment” that is a mixture of many organic acids that seems to be effective. Not sure if its available for you, or if it is available in small enough quantities to be viable, but check it out and see if there are any products like it in Australia.
      The nice thing is that pullets will develop immunity to cocci that can be lifelong….as long as you can control the dose they get (even vinegar will often be able to knock the numbers back enough so that the immune system can cope). I have been involved in a couple research projects to more closely define how high of a dose is effective vs how much is dangerous….we are progressing in this area, but it is (naturally) much more complicated than it seems like it should be.


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