The demand for poultry raised humanely and with non-GMO or organic feed is rising. Many folks inquire about our feeding or handing practices, and are rightly concerned about how their food is raised. Recent outbreaks of avian flu (Tennessee, China) continue to fuel concerns about domestic poultry production.
We have raised pastured poultry off and on for 8 years. We raised several small batches of the most common commercial breed of chickens, the Cornish Cross, but ultimately decided that those birds were not for us. They grow rapidly and are able to convert feed to meat incredibly efficiently, reaching slaughter weight in 6-8 weeks, but their growth rate always seemed unnatural to us. Due to their rapid growth, the breed was prone to debilitating leg problems, and heart attacks. They also lacked the foraging qualities we prized, and were unable to reproduce naturally.
Apparently we weren’t the only small producers who had concerns about the Cornish Cross. Due to the growth of the pastured poultry movement, hatcheries began to develop slower growing varieties of meat birds that were still capable of reaching slaughter size in 10-12 weeks. The last 2 batches of meat chickens that we’ve raised have been Red Rangers and Freedom Rangers, and we’ve been pleased with the results.
Sourcing organic or non-GMO feed has proven to be quite a challenge in Southern Ohio. While there are many sources for local corn and soybeans, there doesn’t seem to be the same availability of organic feed. Producers with the acreage and ability raise non-GMO feed for their own animals, but the lack of availability of open-pollinated seed combined with the perceived convenience of glyphosate-ready corn compels farmers to simply raise what seed is available, using the same methods their neighbors use. Swimming against the tide is neither encouraged nor discouraged– it’s simply harder to find what is needed.
The difficulty in sourcing feed directly impacts the consumer, since feed represents the largest factor in the price of meat. If the farmer is able to source feed inexpensively, the meat is less expensive. If the feed is expensive, meat is in turn, expensive. (Compounding the issue is the lack of organic certified processors, a requirement for USDA organic certification, but that’s a post for another time.)
In keeping with our goals for a more Biodynamic™ farming model, we plan to raise heirloom, open-pollinated field corn, sunflower seeds, and grain for our chickens. In the interim, we feed USDA certified Nutrena NatureWise™ Organic starter/broiler feed. We will transition to RK Non-GMO feed, which is slightly lower in protein, for the last 4 weeks before processing. They will be out on pasture 100% of the time; insects and worms provide the requisite balance of protein necessary for their continued growth.
Although there are challenges to raising pasture raised chickens organically, farmers who are committed to these practices will find a way to provide it for the community.