Many commercial South African poultry farmers are facing a crisis and increased competition due to poultry imports, high cost of feeds, drought and a consumer preference that increasingly favours chicken that is produced in a sustainable way.
Commercial poultry production systems have increasingly faced a backlash from animal rights groups for their production systems which are perceived to be too profit-oriented to cater for the welfare birds. That criticism is not without merit. Birds in a commercial system are typically overstocked, raised in confined spaces, given little to no access to the outdoors and in some cases, overfed on antibiotics which poses the risk of antibiotic resistance in consumers.
Thanks to a constant campaign of information on the commercial poultry industry (mal)practices and consumer education on the benefits of free chicken range production and organic poultry production systems, many farmers and consumers and are now embracing the free range model in South Africa. Supermarkets are increasingly allocating more shelf space for free range and organic poultry products due to increased demand for these products by South African consumers, many of whom are willing to pay the higher price tag for these products.
That bodes well for the future of South African free range chicken farming industry where birds are generally raised in a more human environment with plenty of spaces, access to the outdoors and are exposed to a natural diet that consists of grains, bugs and forage. The free range poultry farming system is also largely antibiotic-free. They do not exclude it together but they do not use it mindlessly either. Due to their ethical concerns, free range farmers are also likely to handle poultry products with greater consideration for hygiene and the health of the consumers so the products are largely free of faecal matter, which is generally one of the biggest food safety concerns in the commercial farming sector when it comes to the handling of poultry products.
Defining the Free Range System in South Africa
While we do not have a legislated set of free range guidelines that all farmers must adhere to in South Africa, there are some general best practices that South African farmers follow when it comes to free range poultry production in the country. This loose set of principles is also subject to abuse. A lot of farmers will simply brand their free range chickens as “free range” without meeting the generally accepted standards and best practices for free range poultry production.
The defining feature of the free range production is the access to the outdoors for sunshine and fresh air. The outdoor space will vary from one farmer to another and many South African farmers are quite liberal with the question of indoor and outdoor stocking density as well as access to the outdoors due to the absence of national standards on free range chicken production.
South African free range farmers generally use two main techniques to manage the free range poultry production in the country. One is the paddock system where the free range chickens are rotated around the different pasture partitions.
The other technique is the portable chicken houses or portable chicken pens which allow you to move a large amount of chicken over large distances on the farm to access new pasture areas where the chickens can forage on the seeds, grass, grubs and other insects found on the range.
At night, the chickens are transferred back to the safety of the chicken pens from where they will be moved to new grazing grounds the following day. This kind of free range poultry production is generally popular with egg laying free range poultry operations.
Free Range Poultry Enterprises
There are various birds that can be produced in the free range poultry production systems. These include the following:-
Table Birds: Table birds are the free range chickens that are raised and marketed for the meat. Examples of table birds poultry products include the following:-
- Pieces and parts consisting of cut up chicken parts that can be sold in the market as value added products.
- Capons or male chickens that have been castrated at 3 weeks and are sold when they weigh about 7 to 11 pounds
- Roasters: These are young birds that weigh anywhere from 5 to 10 pounds
- Fryers: These are young birds weighing less than 4 pounds
- Stewing hens which are old retired hens
Layers: Many South African farmers also raise free range hens mainly for egg production. There are various poultry breeds that you can keep for eggs in South Africa. We have covered many of these in our Free Range Chicken Farming Manual. South Africa has an all-year demand for chicken eggs, both white and brown. There is also a vibrant export market for South African free range eggs. The free range chicken farming system and the semi-intensive poultry farming system generally works well with free range layers allowing you to enjoy optimal egg production in the free range conditions.
Free Range Turkey Farming: When people hear of free range poultry production in South Africa, they generally assume that this only covers chickens and hens. However, you can also raise turkeys in a free range poultry production system. There is good market for these in South Africa. The good thing is that the product management for free range turkey and free range chickens is basically the same so you won’t need any specialized skills to raise turkeys once you have mastered free range poultry production. Turkey production can be especially profitable during the holiday seasons when a lot of South African families purchase turkey.
Ducks and Geese: The raising of ducks and cheese is another profitable free range poultry farming niche that you can delve into. There are a few South African farms in almost every province where duck and goose farming can be done. These birds are particularly suited for a free range production environment. They fit in well and thrive in free range poultry farming operations because they are generally good grazers and like the outdoor environment. The main disadvantage with the ducks and geese is that they are slightly more difficult to process because they have a lot of oil in their feathers which can be hard to remove.
Game Birds: You can also raise free range game birds such as quail and pheasants although the market for these is generally limited. However, there are a few South African restaurants that serve them. The normal free range chicken production system is not too different from the free range poultry production system for the game birds. However, to raise game birds, you may be required to obtain a license from the relevant authorities before you proceed with the poultry farming enterprise.
For additional information on free range chicken farming in South Africa, check out our free range chicken farming manual.