Free Choice Feeding for
Free Range Meat Chickens
The results of a recent research project support the idea of using
a free-choice feeding system as an alternative way to provide feed
for meat chickens raised in production systems that include access
to the outdoors.
The most common type of feed used in commercial poultry production
is a formulated complete feed usually presented to the birds in
a pellet or a crumble form, or formulated, mixed and fed in a meal
form. It is widely believed that this formulated complete feed will
provide the birds with a better balance of the ingredients that
provide the energy, protein, vitamins and minerals to optimize bird
health and performance. In addition, formulated complete feeds make
feeding poultry less complicated and easier to manage in automated
However, for poultry that are raised in a free range system where
they have regular access to the outdoors, free choice feeding may
offer some advantages and should be considered as a viable option.
Free choice feeding is a method that offers birds separate feedstuffs
(e.g. grains, protein concentrates, natural vitamin and mineral
sources) from which they can self-select a diet suited to their
needs which can vary in response to environmental and physiological
conditions. It is reasonable to expect that free range raised birds
will often encounter a greater range of environmental requirements
than those raised in confinement. It has been suggested that chickens
do not chose diets to maximize growth and efficiency; rather they
self-formulate to enhance their well- being in their environment
and for long-term survival benefits.
Animals are born with innate preferences for and aversions to particular
feed ingredients. Poultry are having the ability to learn to select
a diet that avoids deficiencies or toxic excesses. By providing
essential feed ingredients in a free choice system, the birds are
theoretically able balance their own diets by selecting ingredients
that supplement the nutrients obtained from their outside environment,
such as forages or insects.
In addition to this ability to self- balance their own diets, poultry
have a digestive system that is capable of processing whole grain.
Because of this, it seems logical to reduce the energy and costs
related to processing or pre-grinding by providing at least some
of the diet as whole grain. However, it is important that oyster
shell (grit) needs are provided for, in order to enable the birds
gizzard to function effectively. Free choice feeding can reduce
the need for formulation, grinding, mixing, pelleting and transportation
potentially reducing the energy expenditure and costs associated
Researchers at the University of Arkansas set up feeding trial
with 200 meat type chickens, (considered to be a slow growing hybrid)
to determine the effect of free-choice feeding on the performance
of free- range raised chickens. The one day old chicks were randomly
assigned to pens of 20 birds each with 5 pens assigned to a treatment
group where the feed was provided as a fully formulated crumble
diet (FF) and the other 5 pens assigned to a treatment group where
the feed was provided as a free-choice (FC) diet. During the brooding
period (0-27 days) all birds were fed on the formulated diet which
was a commercial no medicated starter/grower diet intended to be
used for the entire life of the broiler. All birds were allowed
outside every day after 5 weeks. From day 28-49 the FC group received
both the fully formulated diet as well as the free choice diet.
From day 49-83 the FC group received only free choice ingredients.
The free choice feedstuffs offered were cracked corn, whole wheat,
soybean meal, fishmeal, crushed oyster shell, kelp meal, bone meal,
and trace mineral salt with all ingredients provided in separate
feeders. From day 49-83 the FF group received the fully formulated
commercial diet only. It was made up mainly of corn, soybean meal
The formulated diet contained 63.5% corn, 30.5% soybean meal and
2.5% fishmeal with an overall protein content of 20.75%, while the
protein content of the free choice diet was lower and was calculated
to be approximately 13.2%. By the end of the trial it was determined
that the free choice diet was made up of 89% grain (37% whole wheat),
7% soybean meal and 1.2% fishmeal.
The final live chicken weights did not differ between treatments,
however carcass yields were higher and as well, the breast yields
were 7% higher for the formulated feed (FF) group. It was suggested
that the higher protein levels and higher amino acids in the formulated
feed likely contributed to the higher breast yields.
The NRC recommends an 18% protein diet for 6 to 8 week old broilers.
While the FC group consumed a much lower protein level, it is possible
that they may have consumed additional protein from forage plants
and insects. Interestingly, researchers noted that there was less
residual forage left in the paddocks of the FC fed birds and it
is assumed that they consumed more forage than the FF fed group.
Feed intake was higher and feed efficiency was inferior for the
FF fed group in the finisher period from day 49 to day 83. The feed
conversion during that time period for the FF group was 5.6 to 1
and for the FC group the feed conversion was lower at 3.8 to 1.
In this study, where all feed ingredients were purchased, it showed
that feed costs were less expensive for the free choice fed group
($.07/kg) versus the for formulated feed fed group ($.08/kg).
The results of this study indicate that providing access to feed
ingredients with a free choice feeding system can be a viable alternative
option for feeding free range meat chickens. Formulated feeds may
continue to be a more convenient way for many producers to feed
their chickens. However, in particular for producers who grow the
majority their own feed, there may be an opportunity to reduce feed
costs with a free choice feeding system by eliminating or at least
minimizing the need for formulating, grinding, mixing, pelleting
and transporting their feed ingredients. Free choice feeding also
enables the feeding of whole grains which poultry are naturally
able to process and make use of. Feeding a portion of a poultry
diet as whole grain has been shown to enhance the development of
the gastrointestinal tract which can improve the birds ability
to absorb nutrients from the various feed ingredients that are consumed
as part of their diet.
Fanatic, A.C., V.B. Brewer, C.M. Owens-Henning, D.J. Donoghue,
and A.M. Donoghue. 2013. Free-choice feeding of free-range meat
Hank, Y.L. and J.G. Dingle. 2002. Practical and economic advantages
of choice feeding systems for laying poultry. Worlds Poultry
Science Journal, Vol. 58, June 2002