Pasture-Raised Chickens: The Effects of Outdoor Access

The Benefits of Raising Chickens with Pasture Access Can Far Outweigh the Downsides

by Sherri Talbot

Pasture-raised chickens might seem unusual as modern practices mean meat is purchased from the grocery store from birds raised in an industrial setting. We forget, sometimes, that this practice of mass-raising chickens is relatively new, having become commonplace in only the last 50-70 years.

Before that, pasture-raised chickens were almost exclusively the norm. Either “free range” – entirely unpenned and free to roam – or “yarding.” As the name suggests, this was where birds were fenced into someone’s yard, otherwise unrestrained but with less territory than they might have wanted otherwise.

three pasture chickens on bundle of tree woods
Pasture chickens

These methods of raising birds are beginning to increase in popularity again, as customer demand for humanely raised and organic meat grows. In one study, only trained taste testers could tell the difference between pasture-raised chickens and conventionally-raised birds, but untrained consumers still expressed preference for birds raised with outdoor access.

The Problems with Pasture-Raised Chickens

Pasture raising is, by no means, a perfect system. Many farmers moved to raising birds in confinement out of necessity, especially once raising large numbers of birds became more common. Free-ranging requires more area, and when dealing with thousands of chickens, this can result in significant costs to the breeders.

Also Read: 3 Forages For Pasture-Raised Chickens

Some studies suggest that, without environmental enrichment, few birds will even use the outside areas if they are provided. However, birds placed in pastures or runs that included shaded areas, places to hide and spaces for dust bathing were not only more likely to use the outdoor areas but suffered lower rates of predation.

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Loss of chickens due to predation is a serious risk that can cut into profits. Since many farmers sell to middlemen who set their prices, these added expenses can make it impossible to break even. Protecting birds while still allowing access to pasture means building special, portable shelters and having the people to move them daily.

Stressed About Sickness

Surprisingly, while industrial breeders regularly express concerns about illness in pasture-raised chickens, results on this have been mixed. With rates of salmonella causing the recall and destruction of thousands of pounds of chicken in 2023, one of the concerns is that outdoor access may put birds at greater risk of contamination. According to the Humane Society (2002) no evidence can be found that pasture-raised birds are more likely to develop salmonella. In fact, they may be less likely due to the decrease in crowding.


One 2015 study showed that fast-growing birds had higher rates of mortality than slow-growing breeds when both were raised on pasture. However, this is generally the case in industrial chicken-raising as well, since fast-growing broilers are known for leg, heart and other health issues. In another, 2011 study, fast-growing broilers raised outdoors had a significantly lower level of mortality than those raised indoors, suggesting the outdoor birds were healthier. Many studies concluded that the mortality rates of pasture-raised birds likely vary based on the breed of birds and the experience of the breeder with this type of breeding.

Why Freedom is Fantastic

Pasture-raised chickens have been shown to be higher in protein than industrially-raised birds, as well as having less abdominal fat. Some studies also suggest they may also have higher levels of healthy vitamins and minerals. Despite the lower fat content, the flavor of pasture-raised birds had been deemed preferable by most professional testers. The unique herbs, clovers or grasses the chickens eat can give the birds a richer, more distinct flavor than grain alone.

Also Read: Free-Range Vs. Pastured Poultry: What’s The Difference?

For those who can overcome the issues with pasture raising, the benefits can far outweigh the downsides. Many farmers who practice pastured poultry gain a niche market that attracts those interested in both humanely raised birds and those interested in better nutrition. They can often sell directly to consumers, allowing them a higher profit margin than those going through major grocery-chain suppliers. All of this while giving their birds a higher quality of life.

This story about pasture-raised chickens was written for Chickens magazine online. Click here to subscribe.

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