Barnyard Buddies

Free Range vs. Cage-Free: What do "Cage-Free" and Free Range Really Mean?

By Nellie's Kindness Crew


Here at Nellie’s Free Range, we get this question a lot: what's the difference between cage-free and free range? And it’s no surprise. The egg aisle has more unique terms these days than chips have flavor varieties; free range, cage-free, pasture raised, GMO-free, organic, farm fresh, all natural, and the list goes on. When it comes to humane standards like cage-free vs free range in particular it can be very hard to know the difference.

Free range vs. cage-free

There is indeed a significant difference between the Certified Humane Free Range standard that our family farms produce to and the “cage-free” label that you’re seeing more and more in the marketplace. (The quotations around cage-free are there because, as you will see, it’s quite misleading). That difference has everything to do with outdoor access. To put it simply, cage-free hens generally have no access to the outdoors, whereas free range hens spend their days in the fresh air and sunshine. Now that you know the basic difference between the two lifestyles, let's take a closer look at what free range and cage-free really mean.

What does the cage-free label mean?

Most people would reasonably assume cage-free to mean “no cages.” But the term is not backed by any regulated USDA or FDA standards (free range is defined by the USDA). So what does cage-free actually mean? Egg producers are left to define the term for themselves. And as you might expect, the gigantic factory farms that have always brought you conventional eggs laid by hens imprisoned in tiny floor-to-ceiling battery cages are now either converting these same factories to massive “cage-free” warehouses or building new ones, as you can see in the photo above.

And what is going into all of these “cage-free” egg factories? You guessed it: cages. Bigger, more complex cages than before, but cages nonetheless, with no doors to the outside. The “farm” depicted in the above photo is expected to produce 1.5 million eggs per day. Compare that to a family farm with a flock of just 10-15,000 hens. As you can imagine, the difference in quality of life for those hens is staggering.

There is no question that placing 10 giant buildings the size of aircraft hangers on a flat piece of earth in the middle of nowhere allows for some serious labor efficiency in terms of handling and processing eggs. But it shouldn’t be considered farming, much less humane.

What does the free range label mean?

When choosing between cage-free and free range eggs at the grocery store, it's important to remember there's a big difference between the quality of life offered to the hens who produced them. At Nellie’s Free Range, we’ve gone beyond the misleading term “cage-free.” On our family farms, hens are raised with respect and dignity according to Certified Humane’s Free Range standard–one of the strictest animal welfare standards available. Our floor style barns have no cages, period, meaning our hens can stretch and stroll as they please. There are doors every few feet, allowing one and all to roam the pasture when the weather allows. And we wouldn’t have it any other way.

Please watch our video to see the difference between cage-free and Certified Humane Free Range standards in action so you can be as informed as possible about the eggs you choose at the grocery store—and know that when you pick up the purple carton, you’re supporting kindness and transparency in the egg industry.


Marsha KingNovember 17, 2023

I read factories remove their chicken's beeks, is that a normal practice?


Hi Marsha, while some factory farms might remove the beak, we recognize that this practice is inhumane. The preferred practice of mild beak trimming is much kinder to the hens and has practical benefits for the flock. We follow our third-party certifier Certified Humane's beak trimming standards. They have a lot of helpful information on these practices and more on their website. We highly recommend checking it out if you're interested in being more informed on humane farm practices:

Ron LeszczynskiOctober 28, 2023

How are your hens managed in the winter as free range?


Hi Ron, our hens are given outside access year-round according to the Certified Humane Free Range standards. A lot of our hens might choose to spend more time inside when the weather gets colder, but you'd be surprised how many of our northern-raised hens are hearty girls!

Heather LampmanSeptember 11, 2023

Are "pasture raised" and "free range" eggs the same?


Hi Heather, thanks for asking this eggcellent question! Free range and pasture raised are indeed very similar in how the hens are raised. The main difference lies in the minimum square footage required per hen: for Free Range, the minimum is 2 square feet of pasture per hen, whereas Pasture Raised requires a minimum of 108 square feet per hen. With all that being said, our free range farms often go well over the minimum required space per hen! Feel free to reach out to us with any further questions: [email protected]

Sharon HastyJanuary 26, 2023

Thank you so much for having the highest standard of care that you can for your hens. Your website has been a wealth of information and I learned something new today. I look forward to sharing with my child what I learned. I will definitely be label conscious. I am pleased that my grocery store carries your product. Best wishes to all of you!


Hi Sharon, thank you for these kind words of support!

Anna M PizzoJanuary 25, 2023

and that is why i love Nellie's it just doesnt have to be inhumane like that. Happy chickens and you get a better product Thank you


Hi Anna, thank you so much for your support! We're so grateful to be able to provide both a happy life to our hens and quality eggs to people like you. We're also super proud to be able to support hundreds of hard-working farm families around the country. Here's to another year full of kindness and golden yolks!

James Harrell Jr.January 21, 2023

Are the cramped chicken cages the reason for all the chickens getting sick and dying? Just curious.


Hi James, We follow the Humane Farm Animal Care (HFAC) Certified Humane Free Range standards, which you can peruse here: Being free range means that during most times of the day and year, our hens are free to roam outside as they please. This is very different from cage free, which typically does not involve any amount of outdoor access. We do have to ensure that our free range hens are safe from predators and disease, so we can’t allow them outside if ground predators such as fox or coyote are seen in the immediate area. During migratory bird season, we protect our birds from exposure to diseases such as avian mites or avian flu. But other farms, that do not follow free range standards are at higher risk of birds contracting avian flu. We hope we were able to address your question!

Mary Ruth WebbJune 22, 2022

Thanks for the information. If I might make a suggestion, that photo of the factory egg farm can easily be mistaken for your own facility if one does not read your entire article here. You might want to put a caption like, “Typical factory egg farm, Not Us” or something similar. I’ve been buying none but your eggs for years.


Hi Mary Ruth! Thanks for that suggestion! We'll pass along this feedback. We greatly appreciate you taking the time to not only read this article, but let us know how we can make any improvements. :)

Danny Speicher May 13, 2022



Hi Danny, Thanks for supporting our farms!

Rachel March 12, 2022

Didn’t fi good on your test but I do know that Nellies eggs are free range and Walmart stopped carring them and have gone to market place eggs and you know how that is not good for the chicken. We have moved to a remote area grocery store is over 20 miles one way but I will be looking for Food Lion and hope the location carries Nellies eggs. Thank you for all your work and time to get a good egg to the market. I learned some from your test. Grew up on a farm and our chickens roosted in a big tree and had free range left the farm 60 years ago


Hi Rachel, we're so happy to hear that you're going to keep buying our eggs! If you wanted to send us an email with your zipcode to [email protected], we'd be happy to find you a store in your area carrying our products!

Kate AhrensFebruary 28, 2022

Love your eggs. Love your commitment to these wonderful beings! When they are done producing eggs, what happens to them? Whatever that is, is humane treatment required?


Hello Kate, thank you for the important question. We believe in honesty and transparency as far as our hens and how they are raised. You can actually find the answer to this question and others here on our website: Please let us know if we may assist further.

WesleyJuly 23, 2021

What do you feed your chickens for yolk coloring? It can't all be from the little bit of grass along the egg of your buildings that less than 90% of the birds use...


Great question, Wesley. Our Certified Humane Free Range hens spend most of their days foraging outdoors for bugs and tasty greens, but unlike cows or sheep, they are not ruminants and cannot subsist solely on the pasture that’s available to them. That’s why we provide our hens with a supplementary feed containing corn and soy. While we don't provide any supplements specifically for yolk color, the hens all have their own preferences to what bugs and greens they like to eat, so it's not uncommon to see some color variation based on each hens choice diet.

MichelleFebruary 17, 2021

do Nellies Eggs contain GMOs?


Hi Michelle! Great question. The grain our Nellie's hens receive is not USDA Certified Organic, so we cannot guarantee that they are free of all synthethic pesticides or GMOs. We choose to offer these eggs for our consumers who may wish to purchase free range eggs from hens that are treated humanely, but at a lower cost than organic eggs. We do offer an organic egg option, however: our sister brand Pete and Gerry’s Organic Eggs. Pete and Gerry's hens produce organic eggs on small family farms that are USDA Certified Organic as well as Certified Humane Free Range, meaning they must undergo thorough inspections at least annually. You can learn more about these eggs here: We hope this helps!

QuinnAugust 31, 2020

I had no idea! I am trying your eggs next time I go to Walmart. Thanks for writing this!


You are very welcome, Quinn. There is a lot of confusion surrounding the various terms used in the egg aisle, so we are always happy to help simplify and educate on what everything means. We hope you enjoy our eggs and thank you for reading up on them!

Chana SchulmanJuly 07, 2020

Thank you so much for this clear explanation. I had heard and read similar comparisons - and actually came to your site to see your facilities and your chickens "in action". As someone who won't consider eating eggs that come from chickens who are abused (and that's what anything other than humane is in the world we live in) - I am delighted to see your commitment to humane care. As someone who has had chickens in the past and understands how wonderful, unique and pretty awesome these guys are - I am glad that they at least have a good life for as long as possible.


We appreciate your feedback and genuine compassion for animals, Chana. We're so glad you were able to visit as well! Thank you for your support <3

Vonda MedeirosJanuary 22, 2020

Hi I been using your eggs for a few years now.. We love it! Especially since when I eat comercial eggs I feel it! I’m that sensitive! And I can test that every time and it’s true! Now I also noticed that in summer your eggs aren’t as huge as in winter. Tho I do realize there’s many chicken breeds and so there’s different size eggs. That being said I’m assuming you must be feeding them chicken feed. And if there’s grains in the chicken feed it causes the eggs to be larger then the normal egg size from just grazing . I purchase gras fed beef from local farms. But as far as chicken itself we truly need to be picky as like your video puts it... so many companies use false advertising on their labels... insane to eat healthy these days.! i choose not to shop in the middle of the supermarket isles .. and if all possible to not even purchase the so called Certified by the FDA for obvious reasons! So we grow our produce whenever possible and avoid all water bottles and facet water! I make my own distilled water and travel to a underground source to gather my own pure water. So we go to extremes ! I’m planing ,if not this year ... then next year to raise at least 6 chickens for eggs. But in meantime I’ll purchase your eggs but wanted to know about your feed. If you can tell me what brand and what’s in it. Thank you!


Hi Vonda! We applaud and admire your dedication to providing good food and clean water to your family - that truly sounds like dedication! As far as the feed for our hens, the feed actually varies a bit from farm to farm and no one brand of feed is used. In addition to being on pasture, all our farms use a 100% vegetarian supplemental feed that contains corn and soy, as well as a wide range of other beneficial nutrients and minerals that help keep the hens healthy, like electrolytes and sodium bicarbonate. Beyond those guidelines, we trust our family farms to source their feed locally or however makes sense for them. We hope this helps!

Robert JalewskyDecember 11, 2019

Hi, My wife has recently learned that she is allergic to the antibiotics used in chickens. She currently eats Nature’s Promise which is a private Label chicken & eggs through Stop & Shop. Are your eggs totally antibiotic free? We would love another option for eggs if possible. Thanks Rob


Hi Robert. Our hens are not given antibiotics as a preventative measure. This practice was adopted by factory farms to deal with the constant filth and disease that is their chicken filled warehouses. They will typically treat healthy hens with antibiotics as a prophylactic measure. Our barns are airy, uncrowded, clean and safe. If in the rare circumstance a hen is discovered to have a health issue requiring antibiotics, and this is very rare, she will be segregated from the main flock and treated. Her eggs will not go into our cartons until she is fully recovered and off any medications. Hope that helps to answer your question!

Sonia November 06, 2019

Are your eggs GMO Free?


Great question, Sonia! Because the feed for our hens is not certified organic, we cannot guarantee that it is free of GMO's. We offer these eggs for our consumers who may wish to have free range eggs from hens that are treated humanely, but at the lower cost than organic eggs. If you have any additional questions, please feel free to let us know!

kate cohenMay 10, 2019

Hi, Love your eggs but I am concerned about GMO feed. Are you eggs NON GMO?


Thanks for the question, Kate! Our eggs are not USDA Certified Organic, so we cannot guarantee that their feed is 100% free of GMOs. We do have an organic sister brand called Pete and Gerry's that may be better suited for you:

Natalie VanRandwykMarch 08, 2019

Dear Nellie’s, thank you for your thoughtful farming ethics. I have always wondered about the labels on eggs that say “vegetarian” hens. Having raised chickens, I know they are not vegetarian - eating all manner of insects, worms, amphibians, etc. To me, this seems like a red flag saying that our chickens never go outside. Your eggs are bar far the best I’ve purchased at a grocery store. Thank you for making them available to Publix.


We're so touched by your loyalty, Natalie, and while our chickens are not considered "vegetarian" as they certainly enjoy their pick of grubs and bugs in the fields, we firmly believe that letting them eat in their naturally omnivorous way is very important for keeping them happy!

John SchmidFebruary 24, 2019

We love your eggs. Of all the organic, free range, etc. eggs we have tried, Nellie's has the darkest, orangest yolks of any we have found in this country. We know that is important, as it is an indicator of nutritional content. My wife is recovering from breast cancer surgery and just finishing up post surgery treatment - chemo and radiation. As such, I have a couple of concerns and questions. Nellie's does not advertise as 'organic'. How close to organic are they? And does the feed you give your chickens soy free? Oh! Nellie's are also the best tasting eggs we have found, either in the grocery store or from small farms. And we eat a lot of eggs. Thank you for a superior product.


Thank you so much for your kind and generous feedback, John. We hope your wife is resting and we wish her a swift recovery. In terms of feed ingredients: our eggs are not USDA Certified Organic, so we cannot guarantee that the corn, soy, and other nutrients and electrolytes that the chickens consume are free of GMOs. That being said, we have a sister brand call Pete and Gerry's that is USDA Certified Organic. If you're interested in giving those eggs a try, you can find more information here:

Catherine BakerFebruary 16, 2019

We love your eggs & appreciate the care that you provide your hens!


Hi Catherine, thanks for taking the time to leave such a sweet comment. We'll pass the compliments on to our happy hens! :)

Richard ThomasFebruary 10, 2019

We bought some nellies eggs the other day and they were very watery. Here is our address 47 treasures place queensbury ny 12804


Hi Richard, we're so sorry to hear that your recent carton of our eggs was not up to standards. Do you mind sending us an email at [email protected] so that we can gather more information and replace this carton for you?

Betty ThomasJanuary 23, 2019

Great product, thanks for being available in my area.


Thanks so much, Betty! We're so happy we are able to bring some farm fresh eggs from our happy hens to you!

Elisabetta ValesiDecember 01, 2018

I cracked an entire six pack of your eggs this morning and they all had two yolks each. How does that happen?


Wow! Sounds like it was your lucky day, Elisabetta. Here's a blog post that explains why double yolks occur:

Micky WatsonOctober 31, 2018

Thanks for explaining


You're quite welcome, Micky!

MichaelOctober 22, 2018

Are the hens killed, after they have served their purpose?? Lay eggs


Thank you for this thoughtful question, Michael. At the end of a flock’s natural laying cycle, we contract with several poultry transportation and processing companies to purchase our birds. These companies send trained and certified humane handling poultry crews to our farms to pick up the hens. At this point, the hens belong to that company, but we have worked with them to ensure that our birds are going to acceptable follow-on markets. You can learn more about this process in our FAQ section.

Annette BatsonOctober 17, 2018

What is your response to this: From what I've read, your eggs may technically qualify as "free range" however if the thousands of barn floor chickens don't have easy access to exit the barn, then they really don't have "free range." With thousands of chickens in your barn, it would be impossible for the majority of them to reach the small doors to get out in the fresh air. Likewise, I question how in this situation each individual chicken can access food and water? Before I purchase your eggs again, I will need to know your beloved chickens are truly free to range. It shouldn't be hard to modify the barn to truly allow all of the hens to roam outside. Thank you.


Hello Annette, At Nellie’s Free Range, we are deeply committed to ethical egg production on free range small family farms. In 2003 we became the first Certified Humane egg producer in the US. We also believe in transparency when it comes to food production. That’s why we conduct public tours on family farms to allow consumers to come and see exactly how our eggs are produced. During those tours we allow photography and videos because we are proud of the way we produce and have nothing to hide. The photo in question was captured on one of those tours. Every aspect of the Frey Family Farm depicted in the photo meets Certified Humane’s Free Range standards. The hens have the ability to move freely throughout the barn and to go outside onto grass pasture. Free range and pasture-raised hens spend part of their days inside and part outside. Hens are social animals and like to congregate closely together. So while it may look crowded, we assure you the hens are comfortable. If you’re interested in getting a more comprehensive look at our farms, the following video is a great resource: If you have any additional questions, please feel free to send us a direct message or email us at kind[email protected], as we’d be happy to answer them.

Gary M BelfordOctober 11, 2018

What do you do with your chickens when their egg-bearing years are over? Do you send them chicken slaughterhouses?


Thank you for this thoughtful question, Gary. At the end of a flock’s natural laying cycle, we contract with several poultry transportation and processing companies to purchase our birds. These companies send trained and certified humane handling poultry crews to our farms to pick up the hens. At this point, the hens belong to that company, but we have worked with them to ensure that our birds are going to acceptable follow-on markets. You can learn more about this process in our FAQ section.

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