Pasture-raised chickens eat insects, worms, slugs, and seeds they find among the grasses. But that’s only when there are foods like these to be found.
These food sources for pastured poultry are readily available in the spring, when a farmer first turns out his poultry to range free in pastureland. But as spring blossoms into summer, and then into fall, these food sources become more and more scarce.
For this reason, the conscientious farmer has a ready supply of poultry feed on hand to see his pasture-raised flock through leaner times.
Are Pasture-Raised Chickens Really Healthier to Eat?
Yes. Pasture raised chicken is healthier, safer, and tastier to eat. There are multiple reasons:
Poultry raised in crowded, over-stressed conditions often produces pale, soft, and exudative, or PSE, meat.
Overcrowded, poorly raised poultry is also more prone to infection and harmful pathogens such as salmonella and campylobacter.
Rough handling, from loading to slaughter, is often responsible for broken legs and wings in broiler chickens, which can leave bone splinters in the meat.
Meat from poultry that has been stressed prior to slaughter may be less juicy, less tender, and exhibits more bruising.
Pasture-raised poultry often contains higher levels of vitamins and omega-3 fats, and lower levels of other fats.
But there’s another good argument for eating only poultry that has been raised in humane conditions, and that’s the cruelty-free factor. One visit to a factory farm would explain why (same argument goes for vegan chicken too).
Poultry that’s managed in a pasture-raised environment can scratch, peck, flap, and move about freely. These are all signs of a content, happy chicken. Poultry that’s raised on a factory farm has none of these opportunities.
In addition, they may suffer stress from too much heat, too much cold, too little food, too little water, and more. A responsible poultry farmer makes sure his wards are well provided for, that they have good veterinary care, and that they’re allowed to be poultry and do the things that poultry do.
This translates into a better, safer quality of meat for the consumer. And it’s much easier to enjoy a delicious chicken dinner if you’re not haunted by the many ways the animal was abused in life.
What’s in Supplemental Poultry Feed for Free-Range Chickens?
The supplemental feed given to pasture-raised chickens includes:
- Vitamin supplements
- Mineral supplements
- Grit, such as oyster shells
Because chickens do not have compartmentalized stomachs like cows, sheep, and goats, they can’t digest cellulose, a fiber found in most plants. As a result, it’s estimated that free-range chickens glean roughly 5 to 20 percent of their whole diets through foraging.
The rest must be provided by the farmer who’s raising them. Usually, this is accomplished through scratch grains and commercial chicken feed.
How Does Pasturing Chickens Affect Egg Quality?
It’s clear that pasturing chickens provides them with a better quality of life. It also provides chickens raised for consumption (broilers) with a higher quality of meat.
But what about chickens raised to produce eggs (layers)? Does pasturing a chicken affect the quality of the eggs it lays?
Yes. It does.
According to a 2003 study conducted by researchers at Penn State University, organic eggs produced by pasture-raised chickens have many advantages over traditionally fed chickens laying conventional eggs, including:
- Double the level of omega-3 fat
- Triple the amount of vitamin D
- Four times more vitamin E
- Seven times more beta-carotene
This translates into a healthier breakfast plate for egg-lovers everywhere.
What’s the Difference Between Pasture-Raised, Free-Range, and Cage-Free Chickens?
Though many use these terms interchangeably, it’s surprising to learn that each refers to very different farming methods. Pasture-raised chickens are ones which are released into a pasture each morning and recalled into a barn at night.
Free-range chickens are allowed to occupy 2 square feet of space, which may or may not be outdoors. Cage-free chickens are confined to barns and are permitted one square foot of space. They exist almost entirely on chicken feed and supplements.
From these choices, it’s easy to guess which chickens are happiest and lead the lifestyle with the lowest amount of stress.
The meat and eggs they produce reflect how and where they live, whether they’re granted access to sunlight, and whether their diets allow for foraging.
But at the End of the Day, a Chicken Is Just a Chicken. Right?
The answer to this question probably depends on whether you plan to eat the chicken in question or the eggs it produces. If so, stick with pasture-raised varieties.
Aside from the benefits mentioned above, pasturing is a more sustainable farming practice. This means, besides all its other benefits, it’s better for the planet, too.
By its definition, sustainable farming makes the best use of available resources. It uses those resources more efficiently, and it ensures they’ll continue into the future. It also seeks to improve yields while causing minimal destruction to the environment.
When farmers allow poultry access to pastureland, they don’t have to feed them as much. Additionally, the chickens scratch and cultivate the land on which they forage (and they can make us of both sexes).
Chickens help control invasive and detrimental insect populations, and they eat weed seeds, resulting in fewer weeds.This gives beneficial plants more room for roots to grow, which then helps to prevent soil erosion.
There’s no need for heat or electricity in a pasture where chickens are roaming, either. Lastly, chicken litter feeds the soil with needed materials such as phosphorus.
There’s really no good argument against pasturing chickens for farmers who have enough land and resources to do so. And from the consumer’s end, the many benefits of eating pastured chickens and eggs far outweigh the slight increase in price.
Why Don’t All Farmers Pasture Their Chickens?
Unfortunately, not all chickens are raised outdoors in the fresh air. Chickens that are hatched and raised in factory farms are housed with quantity in mind.
These producers are concerned with raising more meat in less space, while using as few resources as possible. This translates into a bigger profit. So, the short answer of why all chickens aren’t pasture raised is that it’s not as profitable to do so.
Many of the big producers of poultry, including some of those brands you see in your supermarket coolers, still use factory farming to meet the demand for chicken (though they can still be expensive).
But the good news is that consumers are becoming more environmentally aware and more health conscious every day. As a result, more suppliers are changing how they raise chickens for market.
Many animal-rights organizations have taken up the cause of factory-farmed chickens, including The Humane League and World Animal Protection, to challenge the methods used in mass production, and progress is taking place.
As early as 2017, some of the top names in grocery retail and fast food were championing the end of cruel practices used in factory farming, including Walmart, Whole Foods, Aramark, and McDonalds.
Bills to protect factory farming have repeatedly been rejected in the legislature, and individual states have banned the type of excessive animal confinement that happens on factory farms.
Today, there are still chickens being raised on factory farms, but they’re becoming fewer every year as pasture-raised poultry gains momentum.
You can do your part by becoming a conscientious consumer and avoiding those brands who still use cruel practices to bring poultry to your dining room table.
And it doesn’t end with chickens. Yet another way to reduce chicken factory farming is increasing our consumption of other birds that live & grow within healthy ecosystems. Explore our posts about quail, pheasant, duck & pigeon.