Photo: Heritage chicken on pasture at Three Ridges Ecological Farm
Pasture Makes Perfect!
The information we’ve learned from years of exploring the benefits of pasture-based farming is one of the reasons we are farmers. We want to eat food that is full of nutrients and flavour – that tastes amazing and makes us feel good – while also being better for the animals and better for the soil. Raising animals on pasture combines all of this, making it, well, perfect.
Starting with chicken, we will dish out the benefits of all things pasture-raised in a series of posts based on the best information available.*
Pasture-raised chicken is better for you
Pasture-raised chicken is nutrient-dense as a result of the fresh, natural diet of the chickens. Compared to barn-raised birds (and even “free range organic”), pasture-raised chickens actively graze on vitamin- and protein-rich pasture and hunt for seeds and insects. Crickets and clover, anyone? This delightful buffet contributes to:
- Higher concentrations of vitamins D and E (reference; reference)
- Other vitamins, like vitamin A and beta-carotene, and micronutrients may also be higher (reference) but there’s isn’t sufficient data to say this with confidence
- Gelatin-rich broth and healthy organs and, therefore, increased value of the whole bird; read more here
- Flavourful, juicy meat (reference, showing “preferred sensory attributes”)
- More good fat (OMEGA-3’s) (reference), which this depends on the ingredients in the chicken feed; more on this with references below…
Chickens also require grain and the ingredients in the feed contribute to the ratio of bad fats to good fats (OMEGA 6:3). Corn and soy, especially, increase the amount of bad fat (OMEGA 6) compared to good fat (OMEGA 3; reference; reference). Most chicken feed, even certified organic feed, contains a lot of corn and soy to increase the protein content.
At Three Ridges Ecological Farm, our pasture-raised chickens receive a diverse mix of non-GMO, clean (i.e. no chemical desiccants), unmedicated grain and seed. In addition, most of the feed is certified organic or organically grown and locally grown and milled in southwest Ontario. We chose this mix because it is diverse with barley, flax, sunflower and camelina mash, oats, corn, wheat, soy, which means low levels of corn and soy are balanced with high OMEGA-3 ingredients like flax.
Pasture-raised chicken is better for the chickens
On pasture, our chickens express their natural instincts as voracious omnivores with access to a fresh buffet of forage, seeds and insects; they have fresh air; and pasture grasses provide natural bedding. Happy chickens producing healthful meat – it just makes sense!
What about stresses? In her book, Farmacology, Dr. Daphne Miller summarizes the stresses nicely: Pasture-raised chickens experience intermittent stress (e.g. seeing aerial predators) while chickens in barns experience chronic stress (e.g. overcrowding, no sunlight, ammonia fumes). Animals, including humans, have evolved to handle intermittent stress – it is biologically expected and does not reduce quality of life. That said, we minimize stress by protecting chickens behind electric fence, providing shelters and handling them with care.
Pasture-raised chicken is better for the soil
Pasture-raised chickens are integrated into our farm’s ecosystem. On pasture with regular rotation, chickens provide invaluable organic fertilizer to the pastures; their grazing stimulates plant growth and builds soil; and their foraging balances out the insect population. Happy chickens producing healthful meat for healthy soil – chicken soup for the soil!
Photo: “Pasture pontoons” (aka “chicken tractors”) at Three Ridges Ecological Farm keep chickens safe. They are moved daily to give chickens fresh pasture while fertilizing the pastures with chicken manure. Our standard breed chickens are raised in pasture pontoons. Our Heritage chickens (aka Nova Free Rangers) are better adapted for life on pasture and have an open shelter within electric fencing that is moved after they graze a paddock.
* There is a serious lack of reliable nutritional data available, maybe because nutritional analysis is very costly. This posts draws conclusions from the best data available, making note that there is a study that shows no nutritional benefit from pasturing (reference).