Here's what Robert Plamondon has to say about it:
1. What is free range?
There are three basic definitions of free range (as it applies to chickens). One is correct; two are bogus.
The correct definition is, "Free-range poultry are, for practical purposes, unfenced, and are encouraged to spend most of their time outdoors, weather permitting." Free-range poultry are often not fenced at all. When they are, the fences need to be very distant from the birds. True free-range flocks are generally fed and watered outside. This encourages the birds to spend time outdoors and keeps the houses cleaner and drier.
If the fences confine the birds to a smaller area than they would normally use, the practice isn't free-range at all. It's yarding. Yarding provides an entirely different set of management challenges from free-range.
Bogus definition #1 calls poultry with any access to the outside "free range," no matter how small or disgusting their outdoor yard is. This is the definition used in the US by the USDA. This definition has the advantage of being obviously bogus.
Bogus definition #2 is the European Union's definition of "free range," which is what you'd get if you took the USDA definition and had a PR firm give it a facelift. It's still just yarding.
We let our girls out for a few hours every evening and they never go far. Around dusk they find their way back to the coop. If we need to put them up early I just go out and sort of herd them back towards the coop.How do you get back into the coop? I have viisons of running around chasing the little ladies for a hour trying to catch them. And how far will they go from the coop?