Monday, May 20, 2013

Eating From the Field: Benefits of Pasture-Raised Chicken


So in addition to swimming, biking, and running (and refereeing rugby), I also farm. I still teach yoga and train individuals for health, fitness, and weight loss, but the farming is the main thing. It's my new career. I enjoy it; moving to a farm was a healthy choice for me (and much better than the alternative of running away with a circus).

Our main product here on Prairie Om Farm is pastured chicken, although I also raise grass-fed lamb and am getting some pigs for pastured pork this summer. If you're a health-conscious eater, you've probably already read many reasons why pastured meat products are better for you. But if you haven't been exposed to this information yet, I'll try to provide a little information on the subject.

First off, "pastured poultry" is different from organic, free range, or cage free. 
  • Organic chickens are raised on organic feed (the grains and supplements that make up their feed have been grown organically without pesticides, irradiation, sewage sludge, synthetic fertilizers, or genetically-modified organisms/GMOs), are never given hormones or antibiotics, and are provided access to the outdoors. Organic chickens are good. But, although they have access to the outdoors, they may not ever venture outside; they still eat a grain-based ration almost exclusively; and they can still be housed in over-crowded intensive production facilities.
  • Free-range chickens are chickens who are raised with access to the outdoors. Again, this doesn't necessarily mean that the chickens go outside; it means only that they could if they wanted to. Free-range chickens are still raised in houses, and their outdoor access is usually limited to a small yard. Because of the nature of chicken poop, even if their ranging yard begins as verdant pasture, it soon turns into a hard clay surface. Free-range chickens still derive all of their nutrition from a grain-based ration; they can still be housed in over-crowded facilities; and you don't have the guarantee that they've been fed organic or non-GMO feed, or are antibiotic and growth-hormone free. Still better than Tyson chickens, though.
  • Cage-free eggs are produced by hens who are not confined to cages. That means they can engage in many natural chicken behaviors. Again, it's better than your standard grocery store eggs. But cage-free chickens aren't necessarily given access to the outdoors; they're still usually overcrowded in large production facilities; de-beaking is allowed (that's where producers cut off the beaks to prevent chickens from cannibalizing each other due to over-crowding and stress); and there's no third-party auditing system to ascertain how the animals are being treated.
Pastured poultry producers are usually small farmers raising relatively small numbers of birds (20,000 is the upper limit for exemption from USDA on-farm inspection); our farm raises less than 1,000 per year. Chickens who are raised on pasture have constant access to fresh grass. Joel Salatin of Polyface Farm, one of the the big kahunas of pastured poultry, moves his "chicken tractors" daily; we move ours as often as we need to keep them on fresh, poop-free grass (by the end of the production cycle, 2-3 times per day). In addition to eating a grain-based ration, pastured chickens eat grass, bugs, worms, snakes, frogs, and whatever else they can get their hands on. Because they're not overcrowded, they're not overstressed. And because they're not wallowing in their own feces, we end up with a much cleaner end product. Pastured poultry is very good.

But don't get me wrong; there are potential downsides to pastured poultry. First off, there's no official labeling or oversight of the term "pastured," whereas the terms "organic" and "free-range" are regulated by the federal government (at least in America). As a result, there are no regulations on what kind of feed may be used; some producers I know use only certified organic, we use certified non-GMO, and still others use standard commodity rations. And there's always the possibility that your farmer might be cutting corners, that his or her feed might not be up to snuff, that he or she is not taking good care of the birds. However, the other side of the coin is that most producers are small scale enough that you can go and check them out for yourself. In other words, this liability is only a downside if you're unwilling to make the effort to know the person who's making your food.

That's one way in which eating pastured meats is more costly--you have to put more time and effort into obtaining it. One of the other costs, of course, can be measured in dollar signs. Pastured chicken is more expensive, but I can tell you exactly why. First, there's the grain. We feed non-GMO grain, and it's about twice the cost of conventional grain. That's because farmers can't grow as much corn per bushel using traditional production methods as they can using the technologically advanced, biologically engineered versions produced by Monsanto. That means a lower return on their time and effort, from their land, seed, and fuel, so they have to charge more money. Feed costs are by far the greatest factor in setting our prices. There's also the fact that we are smaller-scale producers, and we can't get grain or even the baby chicks for the same price as vertically-integrated, large-scale producers. The labor plays a part, too, especially once it comes time to process the birds. It takes a lot of experienced hands to butcher chickens in a way that we believe is ethical, respectful, and clean (we have a group of Amish women who help us out, and we pay them well for it). All the costs add up, and contribute to a more expensive final product.

Those are the costs of pastured poultry; let me break down some of the benefits for you:
  • Pastured chickens are cleaner. There's less poop on their feathers, less poop on their skin, less poop on their feet, less poop in their intestines. At standard, USDA-inspected facilities, the poop on skin, feathers, and feet comes off in the scalding water and chill tanks and gets re-absorbed into the chicken meat. Gross.
  • Pastured chickens have better taste and texture. They move around and get more exercise than confinement house chickens, so they have better muscle tone. That contributes to a more chicken-y flavor and firmer, meatier texture.
  • Pastured chickens have higher omega-3 fatty acid content, lower fat and saturated fat levels, and higher levels of essential vitamins and minerals (notably vitamins A and E).
  • Pastured chickens are never fed arsenic as an appetite stimulant or preventative antibiotic.
  • Pasturing chickens puts vital nutrients into the ground as all-natural fertilizer in small amounts that can be readily absorbed by the soil.
  • Purchasing pastured chicken helps your local agricultural community, and farmers like me!
If you live in Missouri and would like some pastured chicken, please contact me! You can reach me by e-mail (jamielynnmorton@gmail.com) or by phone (316.841.6593). I make regular deliveries to Kansas City, Liberty, Independence, Cameron, Kirksville, Columbia, and Jamesport (where I live). If you live on the Kansas side of Kansas City and don't feel like driving to the Missouri side to pick up chickens, I can hook you up with some farmers on the Kansas side. If you live near Wichita, Kansas, I can recommend a farmer down there, as well.

Remember, as athletes, food is our fuel. Better food equals better fuel, and better fuel means better performance!

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