In the last 150 years, farms have gradually switched over to feeding animals grain, in barns, in smaller and smaller areas. This allows farmers to give you a consistent, cheap final product, free from the vagaries of weather and seasons. So why are some small farms, like ours, bothering with old-fashioned practices like pasturing our chickens and giving a 100% grass and hay diet to our ruminants?
There are lots of reasons, both for you as an eater, and for us, as farmers!
When you put beef animals back out on the grass, they become leaner. 100% grass fed and finished beef has a fat content more like that of deer, bison, or elk. Also, the fatty acid profile of their meat changes. The meat is leaner, and you end up with more CLAs, vitamin E, and a more favorable ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids.
Similar benefits happen when chickens are allowed to live outdoors. Even though chickens are omnivores, and are still fed grain, they also eat grass, insects, and scratch around in the soil for whatever else they are looking for. The difference in eggs throughout the seasons is obvious by the yolk color, and studies bear out that the vitamin content is quite a bit greater as well.
Our broiler chickens speak for themselves when you eat one. The fat is yellow instead of white. Modern broiler hybrids are delicate and need a bit of extra shelter to live outdoors during their short lives, but we have clearly noticed a difference when raising them this way.
You can learn more about the health benefits of grass fed food, with links to the scientific studies, graphs, and other goodies, at eatwild.com
This leads right into the next benefit of raising animals on grass- the animal welfare benefit. Modern broiler chicken hybrids sometimes grow so fast that they develop leg problems and can’t walk. The temperature variations of the outdoors, and the larger amount of exercise they get, help these giant birds to grow a little more slowly- which is actually a good thing in their case.
On many farms, both broiler and laying hens are routinely fed antibiotics in their feed to keep them from getting sick. Instead of feeding our chickens antibiotics, we keep the brooder clean when they’re chicks, and then get them out on the grass as soon as they grow feathers. Moving them to fresh grass as needed keeps pathogens from building up and helps to keep the chickens healthy. We rotate the chickens between pastures and keep the young chickens away from where old ones have been, so that young ones aren’t encountering the naturally higher pathogen loads of the older chickens.
Chickens living outdoors naturally take dust baths to remove themselves of any mites or lice that may be bothering them. We sometimes add cedar shavings to the bedding in their nest boxes in the winter if they seem bothered by insects at that time of year, when a dust bath isn’t available.
We move the chickens around the cow pasture a few days behind the cattle. They eat weed seeds and tear up cow pies, disrupting the fly breeding cycle. Another ecosystem benefit!
The main benefits to the cattle of being outdoors are that they get to eat fresh, green grass during seasons when it’s available, are not crowded, can move into shade or shelter as needed, and are not standing on cement and/or in their own manure all the time. We have plenty of pasture, so that even during a long drought the cattle can find something green to nibble on. We have a couple acres of woods, so there’s always shade and some trees to block cold winds. During the winter, our cattle like to come inside our 100+ year old barn & lie down in the straw for a while. We clean the barn out whenever there’s a nice day in the winter, and if there aren’t any nice days, we just keep piling on the straw. Once the cattle are back in the field in the spring, the whole pack dries out & we have great fertilizer to spread on our fields.
We also prioritize getting our cattle tame, and keeping them that way. This helps them to be under less stress during times when we move them to new pastures, when they accidentally get outside of the fence, when we load them in a trailer, or just when we are doing chores around the farm. You can read about the first time we chased wild cattle, and can see why we wanted it to be the last! As we’ve got to know our cattle, and enjoy their personalities, it’s been rewarding for both of us, and it’s just a little sad to see them go on the trailer to the processor. We know that animals with low stress levels make more tender meat, but in addition to this, we believe that their lives on our farm should be as happy as we can make them.
Modern farming uses chemistry- nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, trace minerals, and lime are added to the ground as indicated by soil testing. This is one way to deal with soil fertility, but what organic agriculture has long emphasized, and what conventional agriculture is just starting to come to terms with, is that soil is a lot more complicated than just chemistry. There is a whole lot of biology going on in soil as well. Organic matter holds water, but it does other things, too. Organic matter is constantly decaying in the soil and producing humus, and who’s doing that work? Microbes.
Plant roots contain microbes. Decaying organic matter contains microbes. Manure contains microbes. Many of us know that the old fashioned way to add fertility to farm fields is to add manure. Rotational, multi-species grazing, which is a fancy name for “moving cows and chickens around the pasture all the time,” applies the manure more or less evenly around the fields without us having to do as much extra work in spreading the manure around. One of the ways to enhance the organic matter, nutrient levels, and microbiology of a field that’s been monocropped for many years by conventional agriculture is to plant one or more sod-type cover crops. The job is done more quickly if livestock are in the field.
We still have a lot to learn about soil- it’s a complicated subject. What we do know is that it makes sense to let the animals and plants take care of it while growing & producing what they naturally produce best. We’ve worked with a farm mentor and other organic farmers who use this system on their farms, and they have seen the benefits in their soils over years, not centuries.
Fewer External Inputs
We try to think about where all of the inputs for our farm come from. Since we live in a major corn production area, it would be easy to get locally produced corn for our animals, and in fact our chicken feed is purchased from a local mill. However, what’s more local than the grass growing on your own farm? During our first year of beef production, we got hay from a variety of local farms, but are currently getting it all from the farmer who rents our row crop ground. Within the next few years, he will be planting hay on our ground, and we’ll be growing hay right here.