Pasture raised chicken is best for you, for the chicken, and for the environment. Most chickens sold in the store are raised in cramped conditions, without the ability to forage for nutritious food or live in a normal environment.
Your local pasture raised chicken has lived like a chicken should, and is more nutritious for you as a bonus. Even if your farmer isn’t certified organic, likely she offers a superior product compared to store bought organic chicken.
There are a lot of labels and descriptions of chickens out there. Some are regulated, some are not. You’ll find most are conventional. But you may see natural, free range, organic, and pastured out there too. What do they mean?
The majority of chicken sold in the States is conventionally raised. Only 1.4% of chicken is organic, but the market is growing.
Conventionally raised chickens are raised in “chicken houses”, on farms that usually are contracted to big chicken companies, like Perdue and Tyson. The chickens are not in cages, but are in the house for life.
Traditionally, a chicken house is 400 feet long by 40 feet wide (16,000 square feet), and houses 20-25,000 birds. They start out right after hatching and grow into the space. At full size, those chickens have less than 0.8 square feet of space.
While in the houses, they live in well-ventilated, climate controlled areas. They have no access to the outdoors, and are dependent on the feed they are given.
We grow bigger chickens faster using this method. Chickens are never fed steroids or hormones, but do eat GMO feed. Chickens eat corn and soy, not the insects, greens, and other foods that a pasture raised chicken would.
Conventional chicken is cheap, and can grow chickens really fast in just 7 weeks time. Chickens today grow bigger and faster than ever before.
Naturally raised chicken, according to the USDA, is poultry that has no artificial ingredients or added color. It hasn’t been altered, and needs a statement explaining the meaning of the term natural.
Natural doesn’t mean organic, or really any different than conventional chicken. After all, all chicken is natural, rather than artificial. Your naturally raised chicken shouldn’t have water or flavorings injected into it.
Free Range Chickens
Free range chickens are raised with the ability to go outside. Unfortunately, the regulations state just “outside access”. They don’t regulate how much space, how much time, or what ground cover is available for those chickens.
The USDA states that a chicken producer needs to submit a description of how their chicken can access the outdoors for at least 51% of their lifetime.
You can choose to buy Certified Humane Free Range chicken, where they have more stringent requirements. They require 2 square feet per bird, and chickens must be outdoors for at least 6 hours per day.
Certified Humane Free Range also specifies that the outdoor area be mostly vegetation, and that “chicken enrichment” should be involved. This could be things to play on, or fun treats scattered to encourage pecking and foraging.
USDA Organic chicken standards are better than conventional, but don’t substantially improve the chicken living conditions.
Organic chicken has access to organic feed, free of animal by products. No hormones may be used to promote growth, but conventional chicken don’t get hormones either. No industrial pesticides or GMOs are allowed as feed.
Organic chickens must have access to the outdoors, as with free range chickens. Again, there is no regulation as to how much space they get, how much time, or the ground cover provided.
That said, there are many organic poultry producers out there that are giving their chickens pasture and raising them in a very sustainable way. ATTRA works to help farmers produce the best organic chicken for their livelihood and our plates.
Some of ATTRA’s work involves tip sheets for organic poultry production to help farmers produce the best organic chicken they can.
Organic chicken, raised properly, can be better than pasture raised chicken. Buying local organically certified chicken means you can ask your farmer how they raise their chickens.
Pasture Raised Chickens
The USDA states that pasture raised chickens must have “continuous, free access to the out-of-doors for a significant portion of their lives”. Confined birds are not eligible.
Certified Humane Pasture Raised chickens require 1000 birds per 2.5 acres, or 108 square feet per bird. Fields are rotated, and chickens are outside year round, with housing for them to enter at night for protection.
These pasture raised chickens don’t get organic feed, but they do get access to foraging for their own insects, small animals, and greenery.
Certified Humane Pasture Raised chickens and USDA Organic chickens might be raised in very similar manners, or the organic chicken might be confined most of the time, with no pasture. It is impossible to know how they were raised without talking to the farmer or seeing the farm.
Farmers market chickens may not have the Certified Humane or organic label, but that doesn’t mean their chickens won’t meet or exceed standards. Talk with your farmer to learn more about how their poultry was raised.
A pasture raised chicken has been allowed to live like a chicken. It is able to eat insects, worms, and plants and seeds at will. They live with less stress, and can forage and play the way a chicken is meant to do.
Chicken manure can be a problem in conventional poultry production. That “well-ventilated” requirement is there for a reason! Concentrated manure can cause environmental issues.
A pasture raised chicken can poop in the grass, and their manure is not concentrated because there is more space for it to incorporate with the soil naturally.
Pasture raised chickens have both the room to run and the fun of chasing insects. They are more active, and have tastier meat.
A few studies have been done to determine if pastured raised chicken is more nutritious than conventional chicken. A study done in 2000 showed higher levels of healthy fats (omega 3s) and vitamin A.
Another study done in 2008 in Portugal found that omega 3 levels were higher in chickens raised with fresh forages. The more forage they ate instead of feed improved omega 3 levels.
Modern chicken breeds have been bred to grow fast on provided feed. Heritage chickens, or older breeds, can forage better but not grow as fast. Chickens that can forage well may not have the large breast of conventional chickens but may be more nutritious.
Faster growing birds are associated with woody chicken breast and white striping in the breast meat. Both cause texture issues that customers find unappealing.
Woody breast causes supply issues, as the poultry producers have extra steps to make sure woody breasts do not get out to customers. Instead they are often added to ground chicken.
Whatever the cause, these conditions are seen in heavier birds. Local pasture raised chickens grow slower. They might be a different, less heavy breed. They will exercise and have a varied diet.
Finally, some of your local farmers might be cycling through many animals rather than simply chickens. Raising pasture raised chickens with pigs, cows, and other animals can improve the vegetation, the biodiversity, and the soil in the pasture.
Local Maryland Chickens
Maryland is one of the top chicken producers in the US. Chicken at the store here is probably local, but it is raised conventionally.
The majority of nitrogen runoff into the Chesapeake Bay is due to agriculture. Chicken farms in the Bay area are estimated to contribute 24 million pounds of nitrogen runoff a year.
That 24 million pounds is more than the 20 million that urban and suburban stormwater contribute. Total agriculture emits nearly 120 million pounds each year.
Recent data claims that the poultry nitrogen load is underestimated. Eastern Shore chicken farms may be adding 1.4 million pounds more nitrogen than previously thought.
Pasture raised chickens are grown in a way that their manure is spread naturally over a large area, improving the soil. Since manure degrades quickly in biologically active soil, it doesn’t run off into the Bay.
Ask your farmer about the chickens he raises. What breed are they? How are they raised? Are other animals part of their pasture system?
Eat local pasture raised chickens! They are tastier, more nutritious, and better for the environment. Buy them whole to save money, and learn how to break them down yourself.
Next week will be a post on how best to use whole chickens in the kitchen. Roasting whole, cutting into pieces, and making sure to use the leftovers as broth can save you money, while eating the best chicken you can buy!