The chicken we sell is raised the right way by our friends at Wrong Direction Farm - they are fed organic feed on pasture and housed in portable shelters that are moved daily. These three practices make for delicious, meaty chicken with wonderful flavor. When on pasture, birds supplement their feed intake with fresh greens and bugs, both of which are good for their overall health and consequently the health of the humans who eventually eat those birds.
Modern poultry breeds have been selected so rigorously for fast growth that they must be provided a grain-based ration or else they will suffer from malnutrition. The birds we sell grow on an organic corn/soy based feed with added minerals and vitamins. By definition organic feed does not allow for sub-therapeutic antibiotics to be added.
Many wild animals - foxes, skunks, hawks, owls, and raccoons to name but a few - would love to have a chicken dinner on a regular basis. To protect the birds from the danger of predation and to provide shade (heat stress during the summer is a concern), they’re raised in small hoop structures on skids. Every day the hoops get pulled forward one structure length to provide fresh greens and to leave behind the previous day’s manure.
There are few labelling conventions as opaque as those governing poultry. Cage-free and free-range both have USDA mandated definitions, and while these are both more humane than the conditions in which battery hens are kept they are still very much industrial farming conditions. Cage-free chickens are housed in a huge barn, and while the floor may be divided into smaller pens, there are typically thousands of birds held together. The free-range designation means that these buildings have netted in porches or outdoor runs that the chickens can theoretically access, but these areas can be tiny, and they do not have pasture or other vegetation growing in them.
There is no legal definition of the word pastured, so you should be skeptical if you see it on a package in the grocery store. At the very least go to the producer’s website and see what their standards are. To us, ‘pastured’ means the poultry has continuous access to fresh grass. This requires well built infrastructure that can keep the chickens safe while also being portable enough for easy daily moves. It means the farmer spends a lot more time and care for each bird, and it means that pastured chickens can only be raised during the growing season.
Of all the various types of meat that smaller eco-farms sell, poultry typically depends most heavily on the grain ration humans provide. The factors that make this the case are manifold and range from the genetics of the birds to economics.
Industrial chicken growers are extremely efficient at growing a lot of birds in a small space. They’re willing to ignore the externalities such systems impose on the health of the birds in their care, the environmental pollution concomitant with concentrating huge numbers of poultry into crowded barns, the odors communities near to such facilities suffer, and the poor track record of bacterial contamination in giant slaughterhouses. When these important considerations are set to the side it allows large corporations to produce chicken that is cheap in every sense of the word. That low cost anchors consumers’ expectations that chicken should be inexpensive, when in reality, to produce it in an upstanding manner that shows respect for the birds, the farmer, and the community requires as much labor and resources as responsibly raising any other type of livestock. We sell chicken raised by Wrong Direction Farm because they are conscientious farmers who share our ideals and we have yet to find pastured chicken of higher quality.
Hoop shelters protect the chickens from the vagaries of weather. Chickens have rapid metabolisms and can suffer from heat exhaustion if they don’t have shade during the summer. The portable hoops they live in provide this service. Feed troughs and watering systems hang within the hoops, so everything the chickens need for a happy life - feed, water, fresh grass, clean air, and the company of peers in an appropriately sized group - moves along with them during their daily pasture rotation. Small birds fresh out of the brooder also appreciate protection from the wind and rain. In the spring and autumn upstate NY has some downright chilly rainfall. Keeping the cold and wet at bay is the humane thing to do for chickens that are small.
Finally, shelters also provide protection from predators. Foxes, weasels, skunks, raccoons, coyotes, and fishers all happily pick off chickens if given the opportunity. Hawks and owls are airborne threats that need consideration too.
The benefits of raising chickens on pasture are manifold. For one, the birds have a much better environment in which to grow. They have space to stretch their legs and flap their wings. They get fresh grass and an occasional insect to peck at. They get fresh air. It’s difficult to overstate the importance of giving animals in our care an appropriate space to live their lives.
Another realm of benefit includes ecological concerns. Pasture raised bird droppings are a fantastic source of fertility for the grasses that then go on to feed cows and pigs, after an appropriate rest period for the manure to move into the soil. By spreading the chicken manure with daily moves, the birds’ droppings never accumulate in one spot. Concentrated manure piles (like those generated at conventional poultry barns) are potential sources of pollution. Pasture raising the birds with good management means that large piles of manure never develop.
The final area of benefit is the sensory experience of eating pastured chicken. Meat from carefully managed birds on pasture just plain tastes better.