When someone uses the descriptor “pastured” for any type of meat, bucolic images of rolling hills, colorful sunsets and harmonious living are invoked. These things actually happen in the course of raising pastured meat chickens, but it’s not all sunshine and happy birds. The rise in interest in more naturally raised animals is a good thing for small-scale, sustainable farmers, but the proliferation of falsehoods can make a market farmer’s job more challenging.
Maybe you’re just learning about pasture-raising chickens yourself, or maybe you’re getting a lot of questions from well-meaning but confused customers. Either way, here are four misconceptions about pasture-raised meat birds that might require clarification.
1. All Pastured Poultry is Organic
In order to call a food item “organic,” it needs to meet the USDA National Organic Program standards. While all organically produced chickens are required to have access to pasture, not all pasture-raised meat chickens are raised under the other organic requirements.
“Farmers utilizing pasture-based systems could also be using technologies on the pasture that may be in contrast to organic guidelines (i.e., fertilizers, seed technologies, et cetera), and since many pasture-poultry farmers are looking at costs and returns, this includes feed prices,” explains Adam Hady, a University of Wisconsin Cooperative Extension Agriculture agent. “The feeding of organic grain can actually make a price point that the consumer wouldn’t be able to afford. Other things that come into play here are restrictions on material that the housing can be made from (i.e., no treated lumber for pens).”
So while organic poultry is given access to pasture, the act of raising a chicken on pasture does not make it organic.
2. Pastured Poultry is Vegetarian-Fed
You might see “vegetarian fed” on the label of chicken in the grocery or natural-foods store, but those chickens were not raised on pasture—and if they were, this label is misleading.
“The birds are monogastrics, same as us, and as such are, by nature, omnivorous,” Hady says.
A farmer might feed a ration to his pastured poultry that does not contain animal proteins or byproducts, but a chicken kept outdoors is still going to forage for grubs and insects, and it’s still going to go after—and likely catch—mice and possibly even snakes in the field, happily enjoying a hearty snack.
3. All Pastured Poultry is Free-Range
“Most pasture systems are not free-ranged; they are either daily-move or day-ranged [in pens or chicken tractors],” Hady says. “Either way, there are facilities that provide protection from the weather elements and predation. These systems also allow the farmer to manage groups individually and provide extra care as needed.”
Chicken-tractor and fenced day-range production methods allow chickens to be on pasture with some form of protection but don’t qualify as “free-range” in the truest sense.
4. Pastured Poultry Doesn’t Require Grain
“Unlike cattle and sheep, which have multi-chambered stomachs, poultry don’t have the ability to turn the fiber found in forage into usable energy,” Hady explains. “Therefore, like a human athlete, they need sources of starch to provide the energy needed for growth and development. This is where our grains come into play. In pasture-poultry systems, the birds still need 80 to 90 percent of their diet from a grain-based ration.”
Common grain rations include corn and soybean meal plus minerals and vitamins. As a farmer or a consumer, if you’re concerned about the genetically modified grain content in your chickens’ feed, consult your feed supplier about your options.
Knowing the facts upfront about pasture-raising poultry is essential to success in a new operation, and transparency with your customers will make for a more well-educated food system.