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Supermarket Chickens vs. Pasture-Raised Chickens

By Ben Hewitt, EatingWell Editors, "Ben’s Birds," March/April 2010

How more sustainable practices might make for a tastier chicken.


READER'S COMMENT:
"I raise chickens in the same or at least similar way that you do and they are delicious. My chickens have real meat and real taste, totally the opposite to the chickens you buy in the supermarket. Supermarket chickens have mush instead of...

Ben Hewitt, author of The Town That Food Saved, explains how his “pastured” chickens compare to most of those found at your local supermarket. He and his wife have raised chickens for ten years.

How They’re Housed

Typical Chickens: A standard commercial chicken operation—often called a “concentrated animal feeding operation” (CAFO)—is located in a warehouse-like barn with a concrete floor. A bird nearing market size typically has only about 1⁄2 square foot of floor space.

Pasture-Raised Chickens: To protect our birds from predators, we enclose them in portable electrified net fences, which we move every few days to ensure they have adequate forage. Inside the fences are simple tarp-covered structures for protection from sun and rain. We allow about 1 square foot per bird inside these structures, but they don’t spend much time under cover.

Why Breed Matters

Typical Chickens: Most are the Cornish x White Rock breed, valued for its large breast size and rapid growth (they reach market weight in 6 to 7 weeks). According to the Humane Society of the United States, the leading cause of death (other than slaughter) of birds raised in standard commercial operations results from failure of internal organs that can’t keep pace with muscle growth.

Pasture-Raised Chickens: We raise Kosher Kings. They grow nearly as fast as Cornish x White Rocks, but with fewer health issues. Partly because we like larger birds, and partly because they take longer to reach market weight, we slaughter our chickens at 10 or 11 weeks. Past the first week, when we typically have a handful of mortalities, it is rare for us to lose a bird.

What They Eat

Typical Chickens: They often eat grain that contains anti­biotics to prevent disease and promote growth. Some broilers are given an arsenic-containing compound, roxarsone, to control parasites, although producers are coming under pressure to stop that practice. Both Perdue and Tyson have discontinued roxarsone in recent years, and a bill in Congress proposing an industry-wide ban was introduced last fall.

Pasture-Raised Chickens: The primary source of nutrition for our birds is certified organic grain from a local granary. After two weeks under a heat lamp, they are moved to pasture. It’s impossible to know what percentage of their diet comes from the grass, grubs and unwary beetles, but most pastured-poultry producers estimate 10% to 25% of total calories.

To find a farm near you that sells pastured chicken, visit eatwild.com or localharvest.org.



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