Pasture-Raised Chickens

by 2 June 10, 2015

On the farm we relish this time of year.  After a long winter our pastures are green and full of animals, and we are back at farmers' markets reconnecting with our customers.  This season in particular, we are getting a lot of questions about the details of how we raise our birds.  We are delighted to have customers who are so interested in how their food is raised and in response we would like to share a little more information about what it means to us be “pasture-raised” and the benefits of eating pasture-raised chicken. First we need to clarify some terms. There can be confusion between 100% grass-fed beef and pasture-raised chicken and pork. They are often lumped together in casual conversation as on the surface the two systems look very similar but in reality there are some significant differences.  It is important to make a distinction between the digestive systems of each animal.  Grass has a lot of structural material and is difficult to digest.  The digestive system of a cow is designed to breakdown large amounts of grass which is why a 100% grass fed cow is a very healthy animal- they are eating what they are meant to eat. Chickens in contrast do not have a digestive system capable of digesting large amounts of fibrous grass. In order to raise a healthy and happy chicken (layer or broiler) they require grain as the main component of their diet. However, the addition of a small amount of grass and legumes in their diet which they get by foraging in the pasture, has huge health benefits to the chickens and, in turn, to us. We call our birds pasture-raised because they live in the pastures and forage for greens as a supplement to the grain we provide them. Speaking of forage, this is what chickens are meant to do and where the nutritional and environmental benefits of pasture-raised chicken stem from. Out in the pasture chickens peck almost continually looking for bugs, grass and legumes, collectively known as “forage”.  These are an essential part of their diets and what is missing in conventionally – raised chickens who lack access to healthy pasture land.  Our chickens receive 10% of their diet directly from forage.  This might not seem like a lot however it has been shown that this small percentage leads to a huge increase in nutritional value for the chickens and for us. In one study pasture-raised chickens were shown to have 30% less saturated fat (1) and 21% total fat (1) and a higher percentage of omega-3 fatty acids (1) than conventionally-raised chickens. They were also shown to have 50% more vitamin A (1). This difference in vitamin A was negated however when the skin was removed. Yes, you read that right- when the skin was removed! Do you know what that means? Eat the skin!! This is why we offer whole chickens as well as assorted bone- in, skin on chicken parts. Not only do they go farther while cooking (don’t forget to make stock), they are better for you. It’s a win-win! So what is the life of a Copicut Farm chicken like day to day? Our Cornish Cross chickens are purchased from Moyer’s Hatchery in Quakertown PA at one day old. They are kept in a brooder for 2-3 weeks and then turned out to pasture. Broiler chickens spend approximately 5 ½ weeks in pasture before slaughter, Cornish Hens approximately 2 ½ weeks. Sometimes upon leaving the brooder for the first time the chickens are a bit shy but they quickly realize grass and bugs are delicious (to them at least). We open a new paddock (area of pasture) to them once a week to ensure they have plenty of fresh forage. We recently started a habit of feeding them their morning grain outside in the pasture as opposed to in the coop to further inspire them to get moving and foraging as early as possible. Being that even with daily forage 90% of their diet is grain – let’s talk grain. Their grain consists of a combination of corn, soy, wheat and minerals. It is a low additive and preservative mix that we purchase from the Central Connecticut Co-op in Manchester, Connecticut.  Our grain co-op sources 40% of its grains locally, from Upstate NY and New England. Our chickens receive absolutely no antibiotics or hormones from their feed or from us. Pasture-raised chickens are much healthier birds overall making antibiotics a moot point. The adult chickens are housed in their field coops at night for their safety but their days are spent outside rummaging around as they are meant to do. We have touched on the environmental and health benefits of pasture-raised chickens but from an animal-welfare stand point our chickens are happy and healthy and are provided with what a chicken needs to keep them that way. We feel all this attention to detail results in a healthier life for the chickens and pastures and a higher quality product for our customers. We welcome any questions or comments you may have either here on our blog or when you see us at farmers’ markets. We are also holding our annual Farm Tour Saturday, June 13th. We’d love for you to stop by and see the farm and the chickens (and pigs and ducks) for yourself.  Until then….thanks for checking in, hope to see you soon!  
Sources: (1) What Are the Nutritional Differences Between Pasture-Fed Chickens Vs. Non?, Dawn Walls-Thumma, Demand Media



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