TasFoods and Rob Nichols hatch plans to innovate the free-range chicken industry.

“How can I trust that my free-range chicken was really allowed to ‘range free’?”

“How can I trust that my free-range chicken was really allowed to ‘range free’?”

This is common question facing the conscientious consumer of poultry when making purchases from their local butcher, IGA, or supermarket.

“There is a lot of difficulty in understanding what free range actually means for chicken,” said Jane Bennett, managing director and CEO of TasFoods.

“It can mean a lot of different things," she said. "The reality is that the vast majority of chickens grown in the free-range system in Australia don't ever go outside.”

Ms Bennett said it is very important for consumers to be able to trust the claims being made about the food they consume.

In the June of 2016, TasFoods acquired Nichols Poultry, a company with a 30-year-long history of producing chicken in Tasmania.

TasFoods has been working in collaboration with Rob Nichols - the original owner and founder of Nichols Poultry - to design and implement a new system for chicken rearing.

As well as giving the chickens more room to roam, the approch is aimed to improve the taste and texture of the meat.

Under the new system, a maximum of 850 chickens are housed in a large, spacious, marquee-like structure with panels of clear perspex lining the roof, allowing natural light to pour into the shed, she said.

The design also features rows of pop-holes, which remain open both day and night to allow the chickens to enter and exit as they please
“We have created a system of chicken raring which encourages the chicken to go outside," said Ms Bennett. “Instead of having 50,000 birds in a big shed, we have these smaller structures that you can see at Agfest.

“Because they are small, no chicken is ever very far from a pop-hole or the edge.

“The Perspex sections around the edge of the allow a lot of light into the shed, and the brighter the shed is, the more active the chickens are, and the more likely they are to go outside.

The absence of foxes and other predators in Tasmania means they are able to leave the pop-holes open 24-hours a day.

“This means the chickens can go out at any time - specifically dawn and dusk when chickens like to be outside.

”This is substantially different to the conventional free range systems in Australia, which require the pop-holes to be open for 8 hours a day.

The lack of artificial lighting in the sheds means the chickens rise and roost with the sun.

“They are resting for a lot more, and living a natural life basically."

“It takes us longer to grow the chickens as they are not eating feed as fast, but because they are so active, and run around outside so much, the chickens develop a significantly better flavour and texture. You can really taste the difference in the product when you are eating it.”

Tas Foods has been growing free range chicken in their innovative new sheds for approximately 6 months now, and launched the product towards the end of March.

Ms Bennett said that the product has been well received by consumers.

“If people are paying a premium for a product, they want to be able to taste a difference, and the free-range chicken we produce really does taste far superior to any other chicken that is available.”

Tas Foods is at Agfest to promote their products, and are keen to let customers know Nichols chickens are free range.