I like chickens; they're intelligent, curious creatures with a way of going about their day to day business that just makes me smile. It's hard to be sad when you see a happy chicken.
Unfortunately 90% of Australia's meat birds are produced under "conventional methods" which is a nice way of saying, locked in a light and climate controlled barn for a life that is as short as 35 days.
Sheds hold an average of 40 000 birds and often up to a whopping seven times that number (up to 20 birds per square meter is permitted). About 2% of the chooks will die mainly due to the associated costs to the birds' welfare including trampling, stress and illness.
Over the last 60 years our appetite for chicken meat in Australia has grown from 3 million birds per annum to 400 million. Birds used to take nearly 100 days to reach market size but now our production methods can produce jumped-up, super tweens that weigh in at 1.6kg in 37 days. It's all a result of our unreasonable demand to eat chicken "on tap" and pay buttons for it. These magnificent birds used to have decent lives, were full flavoured and eaten only on special occasions (and we ate the whole bird instead of just demanding a skinless breast), plus we paid farmers fair money for the privilege.
Saskia Beer's Barossa Chooks are in my opinion the finest damn chook in the country. Her birds are grown out up to 60 days longer than the industry standard to produce proper muscle development (which gives the bird great texture). She uses a high corn, vegetarian diet which gives the birds a luscious, rounded flavour to compensate for the energy that the birds burn up while scooting around in outdoor areas; (free ranging can produce a dry, lean chook). Their pastures are stocked at no more than 100 birds per 350 square metres (that's 70 times more room per chook than the conventional system!).
Saskia fell into chook farming in a manner that comes as no surprise if you know the Beer Family. She just wanted the best possible product to cook with, and a good free range chook was hard to come by 16 years ago. Pheasant farming father Colin Beer encouraged her to give it a pop and Saskia became Australia's first corn fed, free range chook producer. It is an uncompromising attitude towards best practice that has led her to set an industry benchmark.
On a smaller scale, Ashley and Christine Boyer turned a hobby into a growing business by free ranging birds outside Yankalilla, south of Adelaide. Their Inman Valley birds are free ranged at densities less than one bird per square metre. Ashley rotates the birds into different outdoor areas daily to avoid birds ranging on "wet litter" (which can produce nitrogen burns if not managed correctly). Their chemical free, vegetarian fed birds are grown out up to 90 days and have started appearing on some of Adelaide's best menus - The Kitchen Door at Penny's Hill Winery and Fino to name a couple.
One of the South Australia's earliest free range operations in Riverton, north of Adelaide, is run by the Greenslade Family. Matthew Greenslade feeds his chooks wheat, barley and peas grown either on his own property or purchased from nearby Clare Valley producers. Greenslade birds have ample access to quality pastures, shade from trees and are grown out between 63 and 90 days in a "natural living environment," without the use of antibiotics.
If you don't want to contribute to the misery of 36 million fluffy lives a year, you have some very real options with the above producers. The term "free range" is however a minefield of inconsistencies in regard to density ratios, feeding regimes (animal by- products are permitted under some accreditations), the quality of land and access hours the birds have to outdoor areas (natural sunlight gives free range birds a more structured skin which is essential for good cooking). Consumer goodwill is easily exploited when a "free range" label is slapped on a chook if the birds' welfare is being forsaken for mass volume and profits, so be very wary of cheap free range chooks. I guarantee shortcuts will have been taken, most of them affecting both flavor and welfare.