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.

Ken Sanes



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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Dave Wilson

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