Editor’s note: This article originally ran in late 2017. In the spirit of keeping important small-farming topics current, we’ve updated information and links, and reposted.
The average American ate a record-breaking 93 pounds of chicken in 2018, making it by far the main source of animal protein in the American diet.
This high demand for chickens has created bottom line-driven factory farms. Conditions in these look very different from the backyard flocks and small-scale farms of our ancestors.
Many people wanting to more sustainably produced food for themselves aim to raise chickens for meat or eggs. And, as an added incentive, farmers can sell organic, farm-raised chicken for profit to restaurants and grocers, as well as directly to customers.
Certain factors—such as feed, pasture access, housing and breeds—set organic chicken farms apart from others that may use similar farming practices. Here are some things you need to know if you want to keep chickens in a healthier, more natural way.
The Difference Between Organic and Pastured Chicken
Pastured chicken is not the same as organic chicken. If you keep chickens that are “pastured,” you’re doing just that: producing poultry that’s been raised on pasture.
These could be free-range chickens that may or may not be kept inside a predator-proof, fenced area. Alternately, your chickens can be kept in mobile chicken coops called chicken tractors.
Pastured chickens are not subject to laws regarding antibiotic use, parasite control, GMO grains or amendments that might be applied to the pasture. So a pastured chicken isn’t necessarily organic.
Strict Standards for Organic Chicken
Chicken that’s labeled “organic,” must be raised according to USDA National Organic Program rules from its second day after hatching. These rules include:
- No antibiotic use. You can’t give drugs, antibiotics and/or hormones to organic birds. (Also note that it is not legal to give hormones to any chicken.)
If a chicken being raised organically gets sick and needs antibiotics, it has to be taken out of the organic program. More than half of the antibiotics fed to factory-farmed animals, including chickens, are identical to the ones administered to humans.
The chicken industry has made major advancements to reduce the amount of human antibiotics fed to chickens. Overuse of such antibiotics can lead to strains of bacteria resistant to the antibiotic. This opens doors wider to the potential for human disease.
- Access to pasture. Organic rules simply specify that birds must be able to access the outdoors.
You can provide outdoor access through a small door in a large warehouse that contains thousands of chickens. Alternately, you could pasture-raise chickens throughout their whole lives.
- Organic feed only. You must provide certified-organic feed for your chickens’ entire lives. This includes organic grains, feeds and supplements approved by the NOP rules.
Organic grains are not genetically modified and are produced according to NOP standards.
Certified-organic chicken feed will not contain any of the following:
- Animal by-products
- Grains treated with synthetic chemical herbicides, pesticides or fertilizers
- Synthetic amino acids
- Organic pasture land. Pastures where organic chickens are kept have to be certified organic and managed according to NOP standards.
- Third-party inspection. Annual inspections of organic chicken farms ensure those standards are met. Third-party certification inspectors might come from a state department of agriculture. Or they could come from a nonprofit agricultural organization or a company that offers organic consulting services.
How Do You Know If You Have Non-GMO Grains?
Even chickens raised on pasture require grains in their diets.
While cattle, sheep and horses can survive by eating forage alone, chickens have a digestive system that does not allow them to process grass efficiently. So you have to supplement their diets.
If you’re feeding your chickens certified-organic feed bought from a feed mill or feed store, you can be confident that it doesn’t contain GMO grains.
Maybe you purchase grains not labeled as organic or non-GMO from a farmer or a feed mill. If so, ask the feed mill or farmer to provide written testimony their grains aren’t GM.
You must be able to prove that your feed is certified organic to the certification inspector, so keep hold of all documentation.
You’ll notice pretty quickly that organic chicken feed and non-GMO chicken feed are more expensive than GMO grains. This is because it is more expensive to produce non-GMO grains and because most of the corn and soybeans grown in the U.S. are GM. So organic and non-GMO feeds are specialty items.
Set Up Mobile Chicken Coops
On an organic chicken farm, one option for chicken keeping is in a mobile chicken coop.
Commonly called chicken tractors, mobile chicken coops can be built at home or purchased. There are different styles of coops to choose between based on your preferences, the number and kind of chickens you keep, and your climate.
Joel Salatin, sustainable-farming advocate and author of Pastured Poultry Profits (Polyface, 1996), among other books, designed a 12-by-12-foot pen that’s 2 feet tall, which is popular design among farmers raising pastured meat birds.
Other mobile chicken coops are taller, feature nest boxes and roosts for laying hens, or have a long and narrow design to give more of a straight-away for active chicken breeds to run. The University of Kentucky College of Agriculture provides a downloadable design for building a lightweight, inexpensive hoop system that’s proven popular.
One thing all pastured-poultry mobile chicken coops have in common is predator proofing. Chickens are largely defenseless against predators, so it’s important for all chicken farmers to protect their pastured meat birds from daytime, nocturnal, land-based and aerial predators.
Heritage Chicken Breeds
Certified-organic chicken doesn’t have any breed requirements.
Cornish-Rock cross cockerels are a common commercial, factory-farm chicken breed. While some pastured-poultry and organic-chicken farmers use this fast-growing breed, too, others use Freedom Rangers or Red Rangers.
These breeds do not grow as fast as breeds developed for factory farming but do produce more quickly and efficiently than heritage chicken breeds.
On the other hand, there are farmers and chicken keepers who want to preserve heritage chicken breeds. They appreciate the flavor that comes from a slower-growing chicken. A few heritage chicken breeds that developed specifically for meat production include:
- Cochin (pictured above)
- Cornish (a foundation breed of the Cornish-cross)
- Russian Orloff
Nutritional Content of Organic Chicken
Chicken has a broad nutritional value.
One 4-ounce serving of pasture-raised chicken breast provides about 35 grams of protein, or 70 percent of the recommended daily value. There are high amounts of amino acids—cysteine, leucine, isoleucine and valine—that are important for support of cardiac and skeletal muscle.
Chicken is also a particularly helpful food for obtaining vitamin B3 (providing about 98 percent of the dietary reference intake per serving), vitamin B6 (more than 40 percent) and choline (more than 20 percent). It is a good source of other B vitamins, as well.
Furthermore, in terms of minerals, chicken is richest in selenium and provides about 57 percent of the DRI per serving. It also provides zinc, copper, phosphorus, magnesium and iron.
However, it’s difficult to prove if organic chickens are actually more nutrient-dense than conventionally raised chickens. The meat’s nutritional content can depend on a variety of factors, including diet and overall health of the live chicken.
Find Organic Chicken Farms Near You
Maybe you’re more interested in purchasing organic chicken and organic eggs than you are in having an organic chicken farm. There is likely a farm near you that raises certified-organic chicken.
Likewise, if you want to start an organic chicken farm, you should visit other farms to see how they raise their chicken and pastured poultry.
Find an organic chicken farm near you using these sources:
- Your local farmers’ market
Many organic chicken farms and pastured-poultry farms will have a booth at a farmers market to sell their meat directly to customers. Ask the farmer your questions about their pastured meat birds, non-GMO feed, heritage meat birds and more.
- Your state sustainable-agriculture organization
Find a local or state organization where certified-organic chicken farmers may help support sustainable farming in your area.
Check out this website, which connects consumers and farmers who want or raise local foods.
Peruse this directory of more than 1,400 farms raising pasture-based meats, including free-range chicken.
With a basic understanding of what organic chicken farming is about, you can further research how much of a market there is for organic poultry products in your area.
Talk to other organic chicken farmers about their pastured meat birds, non-GMO feed, heritage chicken breeds, mobile chicken coops and more.