DEAR NEW FARM:
Is it as important to feed chickens organic grains as it
is for them to be out on pasture? Will the meat quality be
better if the chickens are fed a diet of flax seed and alfalfa
compared to organic corn and soybeans? As a consumer, I want
to know if there’s a big difference between pasture
raised organic birds and those fed an organic grain diet.
A study by Heather Kartsten, et al., done jointly by the
Department of Crop and Soil Sciences and Department of Poultry
Science at Penn State, compared the egg quality from caged
hens fed a commercial hen mash (corn and soybean) to those
of hens in three different outdoor coops that pastured either:
1) alfalfa and grass; 2) clover (red & white clover);
3) mixed cool-season grasses (orchardgrass, smooth bromegrass,
quackgrass, tall fescue, Kentucky bluegrass).
The egg yolks from the hens foraging the three pasture treatments
and the caged treatment group were analyzed for omega-3 fatty
acid, cholesterol and vitamins A and E. Previous research
has shown that the fatty acid and vitamin composition of forages
influence animal products such as milk and eggs (CLA and omega
3 fatty acid content).
Legumes (alfalfa and clovers) on average contain more omega
3 fatty acids (linolenic acid) than do grasses. So pasture-raised
birds in pastures with mixed legumes have higher levels of
this in their diets. Eggs of hens that foraged legume pastures
had more omega-3 fat than eggs from hens that foraged on grass
pastures. Omega 3 fat and vitamin A and E content were higher
in eggs of hens that foraged pasture (and supplemented with
commercial mash) than hens fed the commercial mash only. Omega
3 fat and vitamin content increased with time on pasture but
didn't change over time in caged birds' eggs.
Most commercial poultry diets contain corn for energy, soybeans
for protein and vitamin and mineral supplements. According
to the egg yolk study mentioned, the yolks of the pasture
raised hens had higher levels of beneficial fatty acids and
vitamin levels. Most farmers who raise chickens on pasture
will maintain that their birds get enough nutrition from forage,
insects and grubs (which are all natural) that they need 30
percent less feed than birds raised under the caged model.
The pasture-raised birds are generally resistant enough
to disease and infections that many producers forego the use
of antibiotics and medicated feed. Certified organic producers
don't use antibiotics or medicated feed. Pasture plots should
be frequently rotated in order to knock back pathogens.
Alfalfa is a legume, so it has higher levels of omega 3 fatty
acids; so do flax seed oil and fish meal, which some growers
feed to their birds.
Flax is roughly 40-percent oil by weight, about 55 percent
of which is alpha linolenic acid (also called omega 3 fatty
acid). Flax oil is high in omega 3 fatty acid, which is believed
to be helpful in lowering cholesterol. This high omega content
of flax is playing an increased role in foods in three ways.
- Flax seed is being fed to chickens, with the eggs from
those chickens being marketed as high omega eggs. Flax,
commonly grown as an oilseed, can be added to hen rations
at about 15 percent. Researchers at the University of Nebraska
have found that so-called "Omega-eggs" can reduce
saturated fat by one-third.
- In addition, on a smaller scale, health food stores sell
bulk whole flax seed for consumers to use for grinding or
baking or as a condiment.
- Flax seed oil is sold in small quantities as a supplement
to add to recipes or to take orally on a daily basis just
as castor oil was used in the past.
Adding flax to poultry diets increases the level of omega-3
fatty acids in the meat, resulting in high quality, wholesome
omega-3 enriched chicken.
Pasture raised birds on a mixed pasture (grasses and legumes)
that are also fed some flax seed in their ration are going
to produce healthy meat and eggs. Animals raised on pasture
and fed an organic diet present the best of both worlds, both
for the health and well being of the animals and the quality
of the food they produce.
us with comments, suggestions and questions.