Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Free Range? Grass-Fed? Pastured? What Are These?

Pastured Poultry:

Thousands of small farms in the US and worldwide produce what is called "pastured poultry". To these farmers, pastured poultry means chickens and other poultry raised right on top of living grasses. This is accomplished by keeping the birds in low, wide, bottomless cages called "chicken tractors" that are moved to a new spot of fresh pasture once or more often each day.

This enables the birds to eat all the varied, living grasses, other plants, insects, etc., that they can find. Since chickens also need grain, they cannot be totally grass-fed, according to several experts. In the chicken tractors are grain feeders, and watering devices. Chickens will eat up to 30% of their calories in grass (and that's a LOT of grass), if allowed access to unlimited supplies. Pasturing the poultry assures that they have these supplies of living grass at all times.

A few purists want to reserve the term "grass-fed" for animals raised exclusively, 100%, on grass and nothing else. Now, ruminants, such as cows and sheep, can be raised totally on grass, but by all accounts, poultry cannot. (Nevertheless, certain of these purists claim they are raising their private poultry stock on 100% grass.) This confusion of terms has given rise to a false rumor among city meat handlers and restauranteurs that there is no such thing as "grass-fed poultry" because chickens cannot eat grass!!

A few purists say that "pastured poultry" cannot be raised in cages, that pastured poultry means poultry that is free to roam over pasture without physical restrictions. These folks include the addition of grain-based feeds for their "pastured" birds.

But in general usage around the world, "pastured poultry" means chickens raised in chicken tractors that are moved over fresh grass very often, with grain feeders available.


The term grass-fed poultry is a larger group, of which the pastured birds are a sub-set. Grass-fed poultry, among those who are discussing the topic, means birds that are allowed to forage on as much living grasses as they desire, whether in chicken tractors, small coops surrounded by pasture, or the exclusive French "Red Label" birds raised on glamorous par-courses. As long as they get all the grass they want, they qualify to be called "grass-fed." (Experts, please comment below ~ thank you!)

The public, especially in cities but also in the country to a large extent, have no idea how badly the term "free-range" is abused. It is virtually meaningless as a marketing term. One thing must be understood about chickens: they will not walk very far out of their line of sight; they feed on what they see close to them. They won't go around a see-through fence for water. But commercial poultry farmers, I'm told by many sources, have put little doors at the ends of their huge chicken barns, doors that open onto a bare dirt lot, and by doing so, are able to call their product "free-range," whether the chickens ever go outside or not.
Free Range:

"Free range," as used commercially today, simply indicates chickens that are not in cages and do not have a physical barrier between them and the outside of their building. They do not get any living grass. In fact, one prominent health-food-store poultry producer who has slid the advertising words "forage on native grasses" into their advertising, admits to me on the phone that those birds have four square feet of dirt space per bird (2 feet inside, and 2 feet outside), no open range or living grass of any kind. The company cannot find anyone on their premises who can explain to me what "forage on native grasses" means to them. As of this writing, I have not found one company, health-food-store, restaurant or website that sells grass-fed poultry at anything like a fair price (one company will ship, but it comes to $18 per chicken, minimum four birds).

The sad part is, pastured poultry farmers have to allow their birds to be marketed under the term "free range," because the public heads for that term like iron to a magnet. No other marketing term works as well to sell supposedly healthful birds. The fact is, out in the country, and in smaller cities, with some careful searching, people can undoubtedly find some grass-fed poultry among the birds called "free-range." Almost always, it will be found at local farmers' markets, where the small farmer is allowed to sell a certain minimum number of birds a year.

The term "pastured poultry" makes people think of pasteurization; it's hard to say, confusing, and unsexy. It won't sell a flea. "Grass-fed" is just now catching on, but again, the public is still uninformed of its benefits, in fact of the necessity of switching to this method of feeding poultry. It is an unknown term, requires education, is better than "pastured," but it still isn't as sale-worthy as "free range." "Free range" conjures up a picture of chickens running around a healthy, bustling farmhouse, eating grass and other things to their hearts' content. It is the term of choice.
IMHO, we need to get solid governmental regulation to define the characteristics of the term "free range" just as we did with "organic."

It should include the fact that the animal has close and immediate access to as much living pasture or range grass as it desires, each day for as long as it desires to forage. In addition, the animal is kept on a real range, that is, a tract of land, covered with natural pastureland or grassland vegetation, being of a size and to the extent that the number of animals kept on that land will not deplete the forage vegetation on that land.


Tim said...

Excellent article! I wish it wasn't so difficult to obtain pastured poultry... I have found some local farmers that have it that will deliver it but then it becomes so expensive. "Free-range" does get thrown around an awful lot... I guess we just deal

Jo Robinson said...

Terry, your comments are right on, I'll just amplify a bit. Chicken can survive without any supplementation provided they are on good pasture and have access to insects, worms, etc. That's their "wild" diet. But few pastured poultry owners go this route because the chickens take a longer time to grow and are quite lean. It's very difficult for layer hens to get adequate nutrition from grass and insects alone because we've bred them to lay more than 200 eggs a year. (A wild chicken would lay only one or two clutches a year, so a wild diet was sufficient.)

Many pastured poultry owners raise their chickens inside movable electrical netting called "feather netting." The net is relocated when the chickens need fresh pasture. I have used this method for my home flock. The chicken are not caged and can roam around in a circle about 100 feet in diameter. The main problem is that they can be picked off by birds of prey. I watched an eagle carry off one of my hens. There's always a trade-off, no matter which method you use.

You can find local suppliers of pastured poultry at www.eatwild.com, the website I've maintained since 2000. Go to "http://www.eatwild.com/products/ and find your state on the Gold Map. Click, and you'll find all the pasture-based farm in your area. In addition to pastured poultry, you will find local producers who sell meat and dairy from pastured cows,as well as lamb, pork,and bison.

Jo Robinson
Founder www.eatwild.com

Terry Barga said...

Thanks for the comments! Tim, it is hard to obtain pastured poultry but so worth it.

Jo, I appreciate your essays and thank you for eatwild.com! I appreciate you stopping by and reading here at terrybarga.com