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The average American eats about 80 pounds of chicken per year, which makes it by far the main source of animal protein in the American diet. The high demand for chickens has created bottom-line driven factory farms, which look very different than how chickens were traditionally raised by our ancestors, in backyard flocks and on small-scale farms.
Raising chickens for meat or eggs in a more sustainable way is a goal of many people wanting to produce food for themselves and for profit. Certain things set organic chicken farms apart from others that may use similar farming practices—feed, pasture access, housing and breeds, among them. If you’re interested in keeping chickens in a healthier, more natural way, here are some things you need to know.
The Difference Between Organic and Pastured Chicken
Pastured chicken is not the same as organic chicken. If you plan to 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, or 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 it’s possible for a chicken to be pastured but non-organic.
Standards for organic chicken are strict.
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. It is prohibited to give drugs, antibiotics and hormones to organic birds. (You should 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. There have been major advancements from the chicken industry to reduce the amount of human antibiotics fed to chickens. Overuse of such antibiotics can lead to strains of bacteria resistant to the antibiotic, opening doors wider to the potential for human disease.
- Access to pasture. Organic rules do not say how much time a chicken must spend outdoors, rather that it must be able to access the outdoors. This outdoor access could be through a small door in a large warehouse that contains thousands of chickens or it could be that the chickens are pasture-raised throughout their whole lives.
- Organic feed only. Chickens must be fed certified-organic feed for their 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 animal by-products; grains treated with synthetic chemical herbicides, pesticides or fertilizers; or synthetic amino acids. Organic chicken feed is, of course, antibiotic-free.
- Organic pasture land. Pastures where organic chickens are kept have to be certified organic and managed according to NOP standards.
- Third-party inspection. Organic chicken farms are inspected annually by a third-party certification body to ensure those standards are met. These certification inspectors might come from a state department of agriculture, 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 their diets must be supplemented.
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. If you’re purchasing your grains from a farmer or a feed mill and the grains are not labeled as organic or non-GMO, ask the feed mill or farmer if the grains are GM. You must be able to prove that your feed is certified organic to the certification inspector, so keep hold of this 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.
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, which 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 and appreciate the flavor that comes from a slower-growing chicken. A few heritage chicken breeds that were 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 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), and it is a good source of other B vitamins, as well. In terms of minerals, chicken is richest in selenium and provides about 57 percent of the DRI per serving, plus 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
If 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. You can ask the farmer your questions about their pastured meat birds, non-GMO feed, heritage meat birds and more.
- Your state sustainable-agriculture organization: Many certified-organic chicken farmers will join their local or state organization to lend a hand to the work being done to support sustainable farming in your area.
- LocalHarvest.com: This website connects consumers and farmers who want or raise local foods.
- EatWild.com: This is a 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 and what it would take for you to get started. You can also talk to other organic chicken farmers about their pastured meat birds, non-GMO feed, heritage chicken breeds, mobile chicken coops and more.