Terminology about layer production practices is ambiguous and there are no definitive explanations for the different methods. Some people try to define the practices like I do below, but there is no body of experts who have come to a consensus on the definitions. So here are my definitions of the following terms.
Industrial confinement layer houses - This is how most eggs in the United States are produced. In layer houses, 5 or 6 hens are jammed in a cage so small that they can’t spread their wings. Thousands of cages are stacked in a building. The hens never see natural sunlight or eat a fresh plant or insect during their two years of life.
Cageless - This is the lowest bar for freeing layers. You simply take them out of the cages. They can be raised under various production practices.
Free range - Some definitions of free range are not much different than cageless. But I like to use this term as the highest bar for freeing layers. They are totally free. This is your typical farm yard chickens. They roam and scavenge where ever they want and in doing so get a whole smorgasbord of plants and insets to eat. They keep the weeds down and eat annoying insects. For example, when I grew up on the farm, we never had earwigs as long as we had chickens roaming the yard. The down side of free range is that the chickens are vulnerable to predators. You get chicken manure in the most unsightly places. They may also start laying their eggs any place they want. But a good chicken coop with roosts, nesting boxes, and supplemental feed will coax them in to lay eggs in the boxes and will protect them from predators at night
Cooped - The chickens are confined but it is is a big step above cages. Many backyard flocks spend a cold snowy winter in the coop. Usually coops are used in conjunction with free range and pasturing.
Pastured - The layers are on green pastures, where they have access to grasses, legumes, and other broadleaf plants. In a good pasturing system, the layers are confined to a large area with netted fencing or to smaller areas with pasture coops (chicken tractors). They are rotated to fresh pastures after they eat the plants down. This gives the chickens fresh plants to eat and it lets the pastures rejuvenate.
Organic - This is the only term where there are official guidelines which are published by the USDA National Organic Standards Board. Here is some of the language related to housing and pastures. “Poultry housing must be sufficiently spacious to allow all birds to move freely, stretch their wings and engage in natural behaviors. Organic livestock facilities shall give poultry the ability to choose to be in the housing or outside in the open air and direct sunshine. Outside access and door spacing must be designed to promote and encourage outside access for all birds on a daily basis. For pasture based systems birds must be provided with access to a variety of vegetation.”Join the cause! Help liberate the layers! Raise your own hens! Even a small back yard is big enough for 2or 3 hens. If you can’t raise your own, then consider buying organic or cageless eggs.