Every week from April until mid to late November, we attend local farmers markets. We of course have our usual customers that are hooked on our chicken who stop by, get their favorite cuts, and go about their shopping as they patronize the other vendors. These are the ones who are already familiar with us, know we did our homework and know the quality and story behind what they are buying. However, there are those who have never purchased from us that just see a sign that reads “Pasture Raised Chicken” and they stop by to check us out. A quick welcome is followed by, “So are your birds free range?” Well, that’s a difficult question to answer in just a quick reply. If I say, “No” they think we are just some run of the mill chicken farm and want to walk away. If I say, “Yes” it’s not entirely accurate. So I decided to write this and give the full answer. To be clear, this article is only talking about our meat chickens, not our layers. Our laying hens have different behaviors, so they are in fact raised free range. Our meat birds however, we cater their unique nature differently.
First understand, like most things in the grocery store, free range is a buzzword. Even when we say “Pasture Raised,” there technically is no definition to that term. That means your CAFO (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation) chicken can legally have a label with the words “Pasture Raised” even if those birds never see a blade of grass. Just for the record, when we use that term, we actually mean it. But let’s get back to free range. Free ranging broilers sounds great and paints this picture of happy little chickens with freedom in their hearts. In reality, it is a little different. While it sounds great, it creates some problems.
Broilers tend to concentrate in one area more than others. That means, in a matter of a few days, all the nutrition is stripped from the land. It’s left with no cover and is now just bare dirt. No more green, means no more chlorophyll. We will come back to chlorophyll’s role in a minute.
Because the birds tend to concentrate in one area, the manure keeps piling up adding so much nitrogen that it becomes a toxic overload which the first rain will gather and create a run off. This is what happens with CAFO farms near the Mississippi River. All the toxic runoff routes right to the Mississippi River and is carried into the Gulf of Mexico which has, in part, created a dead zone. Another culprit of that dead zone is no doubt the heavy chemicals used in industrial agriculture, mostly glyphosate, commonly known as Round Up. But make no mistake, the heavy manure loads have played a role as well. This is what happens when soil can’t metabolize all the nitrogen it is being fed. It has to go somewhere, and oftentimes that somewhere is a place that creates a problem.
Now remember that chlorophyll that has been eaten away? Just one week into free range the birds lounge in their own manure, which needless to say, is not healthy. Chlorophyll is a natural detox and immune builder. It also improves gut health & energy levels. Talk about a double whammy! We give them a toxic bed and take away a detox in their diet.
Now, if we were talking about cows, fencing them in doesn’t have a negative view, nor should it. In fact, electric fencing is one of the greatest inventions when it comes to livestock. We essentially can give cows a steering wheel and direct them over the land as us stewards see fit. We read the land, understand the pastures, and use controlled migration to build the soil. This is exactly what we plan to do with our chickens rather than free range.
With floorless structures, they have access to the sun and shelter from the rain. They are protected from predators and we can fix the above problems much like electric fencing does for cows; we give them a steering wheel, accelerator and brakes. We are now ready to control their movement over a pasture.
So we need to give them fresh grass. We do this by only giving them access to 144 sqft at a time for 24 hours. After 24 hours, that part of the pasture has had enough nitrogen and the grass has been eaten and scratched just enough to start a fast regrowth cycle. It hasn’t been taken down to dirt and left bare. It’s just the right amount of disturbance to allow a lush, green pasture to awake. When the chickens are moved 12 feet forward, they are on fresh grass. This is also like giving them fresh bed sheets. They are no longer lounging in their manure from yesterday. We have now controlled the spread of their manure in a way that is conducive to pasture regeneration and made sure they always have fresh salad and hunting grounds for the biggest crickets, grasshoppers & grubs they can find. When we come to move the tractors, you can visibly see the chickens get excited and happy to move. They know fresh ground is coming and it is the favorite part of their day.
For those of you who have tried our chicken 3 years ago, you can probably attest to this. We tried the free range approach then. I am sure many of you notice a difference from then until now. The quality is much better, and we no longer deal with a giant muddy pasture. We have grass again!
So do we free range our broilers? We do better. We biomimic patterns found in nature to aid in healthy soil as well healthy and happy birds.