If you look at the labels of things like chicken and eggs at the grocery store you will find a dizzying number of buzzwords trying to entice you to make the “right” choice. Many of the labels are just ambiguous phrases that make the consumer feel good about what they’re eating, but aren’t really a meaningful representation of what the consumer thinks they’re getting. Things like “natural” and “cage-free” sound good to the average consumer who imagines a serene, pastoral setting with chickens scratching the lush grass at the base of a windmill, but let’s talk about reality for a minute. I’m not going to drill down on every labeling phrase, but be warned, most of them are meaningless. Some “cage free” and “free range” birds never even see the outside of a crowded commercial chicken house. That “range” could be a slab of concrete or bare dirt outside a small door that they never even pass through. Most people (myself included) feel good about buying things labeled “organic”, but when it comes to organic meat products, you’re really only being guaranteed that the animal was fed organic grains and not given antibiotics/growth hormones/etc. While that’s better than some production methods, that doesn’t mean the chicken wasn’t still just crammed into a crowded building while it was eating organic grain.
So, what’s the answer? We think it’s locally raised, pastured poultry. What does that mean? Well, who knows? What it means in most pastured poultry operations and in our system is that once our birds have fully feathered out in the brooder (about 3 weeks of age), they are taken out to our pasture and are placed into floorless structures that allow the birds to eat grass and bugs along with their grain rations. Some people seem misled by the term “pastured” and think that it means the chickens are not given any supplemental feed and are gleaning all their needs from the pasture, but that’s not the case. At a production level, it’s not feasible to expect to grow chickens to a marketable size with no grain inputs. The structures, called chicken tractors, are moved to new grass every day to allow the birds to continue foraging for a portion of their diets. This forage allows the chickens to uptake more vitamins, minerals, omega 3’s, etc. than they would otherwise get in a confinement operation, thus producing a more nutrient-dense meat. We are planning to experiment with a day-range system once our pastures have perimeter fencing to allow the birds to range over more ground than a chicken tractor provides. While the final product will remain the same, we think it’s ultimately better for the birds.
Our main goals in farming are to produce the healthiest possible products in the most environmentally beneficial way we can. As I’ve mentioned in the past, we use organic grains for all of our animal operations that require supplemental feed (future lambs and cattle will be grass-only). We think that the organic production methods used to produce our grain not only provide a more nutritious feed for the animals, but also are much better for the environment than conventional grain production. Another added benefit of pasturing our chickens (and turkeys) is that we are able to evenly distribute their manure as a natural fertilizer across our pasture, which will help in building the quality of our soil and grasses/legumes. With proper stocking density, we’ll be able to add sheep and a few cattle to our pastures and they will graze and trample the grass, which will also help build soil and grass. Over the course of a few years, we should see our pastures improve significantly without having to bring in any additional fertilizers. As our pastures improve through daily pasture rotations, we should be able to increase our stocking density, allowing us to produce more animals on the same land base. All from proper, intensive grazing practices!
While the animal welfare piece and the environmental impact component of this is important, we still have to produce a great tasting product. This is another area where pastured poultry wins out over conventional, confinement chicken. You can taste the difference. When birds are allowed to eat grass, clover, and grasshoppers, all while actually being able to walk around, they develop a superior flavor. Pastured poultry producers usually raise their birds a little longer than confinement operations too, which allows the birds to develop more quality fat and muscling, resulting in a better flavor and texture profile as well. We recently had some friends in town from Colorado and decided to cut up one of our whole chickens, brine it, and grill it for them. Our friend, Sean, couldn’t stop raving about how good the chicken was. He was telling us that he had recently bought some chicken from the store and it had a terrible texture and no flavor. We haven’t bought chicken from the store for a couple years, but it sounded about like how I remember it. If you want the best tasting and most nutritious chicken you can buy, seek out a farm raising pastured poultry in your area. It will definitely cost you a little more, but it’s reflective of the real cost of raising real food.