Grass Fed Chicken
It May Sounds Good, But It's a Bad Idea
Is There Grass Fed Chicken? What About Grain Free Chicken?
Why can there be grass fed beef in the aisle of every supermarket, but not grass fed chicken? Why is there organic chicken, free range chicken, pastured chicken, but no grass fed chicken? This is an obvious question to ask, and the answer tells us some interesting things about chickens, cows, and farming in general
The most basic reason is that cows and chickens are very different animals. Cows are grazing specialists. Their bodies is designed to eat grass, and lots of it. They have a four chambered stomach with a capacity to process amazing amounts of forage. They go through life eating as much as they can as fast as they can. Chickens, on the other hand, are much pickier. A chicken is remarkably good at spotting the tastiest morsels, whether leaf, root, seed, grain, or insect, and snapping it up.
Rather than eating a lot of one thing, like a cow with grass, chickens try to eat the very best parts of a lot of things. They will certainly peck tender shoots of grass and clover, but they also seek out seed, scratch up ants, and so on. Cows eat a lot of low calorie food, while chickens eat much less high calorie food. This is why grass fed chicken can't exist; chickens simply need more concentrated sources of calories than they can get from grass alone. Chickens can digest grass, but they can't digest it efficiently enough to only eat it.
But grain free chicken is possible, at least theoretically, because there are sources of concentrated calories that are not grain. But before I go deeper into this it's worth understanding a bit more about chicken breeds and what it has to do with how much grass they can eat.
Meat Chickens and Egg Chickens are Different
The ancestor of the modern chicken still exists. The junglefowl of southeast Asia is a 2-3 pound wild bird that lives, unsurprisingly, in the jungle, where it eats seeds, fruit, roots, and insects. It is not especially meaty, and it does not lay an especially large number of eggs. But since being domesticated some 8000 years ago hundreds of chicken breeds have developed from the junglefowl. Many have a distinctive look, but almost all either produce lots of eggs or quickly grow to efficiently produce meat. So a modern hen will lay about 300 eggs in a year, while a modern meat chicken will grow to market weight in just a couple months. These remarkable capabilities come with increased metabolic demands. Even a junglefowl does not live on grass alone. The fact that the chickens that have descended from it grow so much faster or produce so many more eggs means they are even less capable of thriving on only grass.
So chickens need a reliable source of balanced, chicken-appropriate feed to be healthy. To lay lots of eggs a hen needs plenty of protein, calcium, and more. Meat chickens have similarly particular nutritional needs. Raising chickens requires a feed program, full stop. Anyone who claims to raise chickens on grass alone, like grass fed cows or sheep, is lying to you.
Grain Free Chicken
Unlike grass fed chicken, I am not prepared to dismiss the idea of grain free chicken. In fact, I'm sure it's possible, with a caveat. Grain-based rations are well understood; so many chickens have been raised with grain making up a significant part of their diet for so long that feeding chickens on grain really is a science. While there are reasonable candidates to replace things like corn and soy in a chicken's diet, they are not widely used, so they would require a bit of experimentation to dial in.
That said, some combination of sunflower and flax seed, perhaps with molasses used for energy could work. Fish meal is an excellent source of available protein, so I'm confident it would be a more than adequate replacement for soy, but I worry it would impart bad flavors to the meat or eggs. Also, while there are problems with how soy is farmed, the production of fish meal is far worse for the environment. I'm interested in the possibility of farmed insects as a viable protein alternative for chickens, and there's interesting research on duckweed as a protein source.
I'm hoping that in the coming years a reliable, high-quality, affordable, and environmentally friendly alternative to soy will emerge.
Would Grass Fed Chicken be Healthy?
My impression is that most people who are interested in grass fed chicken want it for health reasons. Given that the food system has created the incredibly unhealthy Standard American Diet, this seems like a reasonable intuition. If it's unhealthy to feed grain to cows, why should it be any better to feed it to chickens? I hope I've explained the physiological differences well enough that it's clear why what works for a cow will not work for a chicken. But even if we accept that chickens can't be entirely grass fed, can we at least argue for what a healthier chicken would be?
But I also want to take a moment here to encourage a little (actually, a whole lot) of humility when it comes to the relationship between what we eat and our health. The science of diet is incredibly complex and ambiguous. If someone is telling you they have all the answers when it comes to diet and health, be skeptical. If someone is telling you they have all the answers and that science proves you should be eating grass fed chicken, be really, really, really skeptical.
Even big, well studied topics like the relationship between Omega-3s and health are not well understood. When it comes to a much narrower question, like the health impact of eating chickens raised in one way compared to another, the honest thing to do is accept that there is simply no good data, and likely never will be.
Pastured Chicken is the Answer
But that doesn't mean we should throw up our hands and assume all chicken is created equal. Let me repeat some of the things junglefowl eat: leaves, seeds, roots, bugs, fruits, and more. Grains are seeds, but there's a lot more on that list. While chickens can survive on grain alone, if the species they are domesticated from enjoys a more varied diet, it makes sense that chickens would too. And experience bears this out. If given the option, chickens will spend hours every day scratching in the dirt for ants, pecking at roots, and yes, eating grass and clover. They will also eat plenty of grain, but chickens raised on pasture have far more variety in their diet than those raised in factory farms or closed barns.
The next obvious question is whether chicken raised this way is better. Are the chickens themselves healthier, and is their meat a healthier human food? As I said a moment ago, I cannot claim to know of any studies that would prove this to be the case. But even without perfect information, we nevertheless must choose what to eat. Without knowing exactly which aspects of the modern food system are most responsible, it is clear that the Standard American Diet lies at the root of many contemporary health problems.
Given this lack of certainty about specifics combined with absolute certainty that the standard diet is completely broken, it makes sense to eat simple, whole foods as much as possible. In the case of livestock, this means raising animals on biologically appropriate diets. Viewed through this lens, grass fed beef and lamb make sense, but grass fed chicken does not. Chickens are suited to a diet of both grain and pasture (and roots and bugs and more.) I've written a whole page about the distinction between grass fed and pastured, but the basic idea is pretty easy to grasp. Grass fed animals, like cows, only eat grass. Pastured animals, like chickens, eat grass and grain or other supplemental feed. This is why there are plenty of companies advertising pastured chicken, some of which are good and some of which are not, but there are no grass fed chicken brands.
There's a natural tendency, particular in areas of food and purity, to want to go to extremes, whether that's vegan or carnivore, thirty bananas a day or keto, or grass fed chicken for that matter. But in farming and in life it often makes sense to look for balance. Chickens are living creatures with particular needs and instincts, which is why factory farming, which crowds them by the tens of thousands into huge barns, with no grass or sunlight or fresh air, is so terrible. But trying to make them live on an unsuitable diet like grass alone isn't any better. The right thing to do is to raise them in a context where they can scratch and peck while also having a reliable source of suitable food.