If you ever encounter a poultry producer trying to sell you chicken that’s “grass-fed,” don’t buy that chicken. There’s no such thing as grass-fed chicken! While our chickens are pasture-raised, their digestive systems don’t allow them to digest forages. It may look like they’re eating grass as they walk through the field, pecking and scratching, but they’re actually eating seeds, insects and worms. They do take in a little bit of plant material along the way and have a particular fondness for white clover and bluegrass. Pasture-kept chickens receive only 10 to 20 percent of their nutrition from the pasture, but we can tell when ours have come upon a good stand of white clover, as they’ll eat less of their grain ration during that time. The rest of Elmwood Stock Farm’s chickens’ nutrition comes from a ration of organic grains—corn grown here and roasted soybeans—plus fishmeal, limestone, alfalfa meal, vitamins and minerals.
Being organic means these feeds are grown without the use of genetically modified seeds. Genetically modified seeds have DNA from another organism inserted into their genetic code. For example, Roundup Ready or glyphosate-resistant soybeans—soybeans that are not affected when sprayed by the chemical herbicide glyphosate—have their genes spliced with the DNA from a bacterium. The resulting plants withstand application of glyphosate (Monsanto’s Roundup), meaning farmers can coat the field with the chemical to kill the weeds without killing their crop. Non-GMO grains are becoming more popular among pasture-based-chicken farmers as more consumers voice their concerns about the health and environmental risks of producing and consuming GMOs.
Being non-GMO is a good start, but organic also means these crops were grown without the use of damaging synthetic chemical fertilizers, herbicides, insecticides or pesticides. US Department of Agriculture National Organic Program rules dictate what substances may be used on an organic farm, and the list of prohibited substances is a lot longer than the list of the naturally derived, allowed substances. This is a big difference between organic chicken feed and non-GMO chicken feed: The non-GMO chicken feed can still be grown using potentially harmful chemicals.
Organic feeds are grown on farms with an Organic Systems Plan that is reviewed every year by an organic-certification agency. The OSP outlines all of the production, harvest and conservation practices that the farm follows, which extends far beyond the use of non-GMO seeds.
In addition to the crop-production side of organic chicken feed, the feed itself cannot contain animal byproducts (including manure, fats, blood, urea or bone meal), antibiotics, synthetic medications or nutrients, chemically based preservatives, or any other non-organic-certified ingredients. The pastures where these chickens are kept must be certified organic, as well, meaning they must be planted with non-GMO seeds, maintained without the use of chemicals or synthetic substances, and fenced with non-chemically treated lumber.
Even with the growing popularity of both organic and non-GMO crop production, the USDA Economic Research Service reports 90 percent of all corn and 93 percent of all soybeans grown in the U.S. are genetically modified. Unless corn and soybeans are certified as organic or verified as non-GMO through a third-party, non-federally regulated verification organization, like the Non-GMO Project, you can be almost sure they’re genetically modified.
Feeding organic feed offers peace of mind that the chickens are getting high-quality nutrition that was produced without chemicals, antibiotics, GMOs and environmentally damaging practices.