I asked several vendors at the farmers market, all seemingly honest and sincere people. They all told me their chickens get both feed and pasture everyday. One said she felt they only ingested 30% from pasture. Another said the chickens have their choice of feed or pasture so he couldn't say percentages. Are there any farmers here who can comment on this? Would the feed compromise an optimal fatty acid profile gotten from pasture? Maybe not a legitimate comparison but I know that when cattle are switched from grass to grain their fatty acid profile changes quickly.
I would guess that 30% would be quite high.
Chickens are not grazing animals and lack the special digestive system of cows so they can only obtain quite a small percentage of their diet from grass.
Chickens also eat the grubs and insects found in pasture however it takes a large area of pasture to supply a regular diet of grubs for a single chicken. A few hens can strip a large area of all living things quite fast in my experience.
Wild Jungle Fowl which are the ancestors of modern chickens still live in the wild of Pakistan,link. There you will find less than 10 birds per square kilometer of land. There is no way to commercially produce eggs at such low stocking densities. In Europe free range hens are kept at more like 1000 birds per square kilometer of outdoor space.
If you want commercial eggs at an affordable price the chickens have to be fed something and that is always one kind of grain or another.
The benefits of grass and green plants in the diet of chickens comes at quite a low percentage of the diet.
The wild ancestors of chickens did not tend to live on pasture.
Even in the good old days, when we had free range chickens, they visited the horse barn regularly to scratch and dig up oats/bran/hay seeds, etc. They also went nuts over any of our edible garbage that got thrown out for the pigs and would also "clean" the dog bowls after they ate their old-style kibble. I personally saw them catch all manner of insects and peck at weeds, etc., so all I can say is they like to eat EVERYTHING!
Needless to say, we got world-class eggs from those hens. The major challenge was finding where they hid them.
Chickens you keep for yourself can be fed on table scraps and worms - you can grow compost worms and use them to supplement chicken feed (worms fed on comfrey tea compost would be especially nutritious), or you can leave buckets of animal meat/fat or even collect roadkill in buckets to "grow" maggots. Holes in the side of the bucket will allow you to just drop it in the coop/yard and they can grab up all the bugs as they crawl out.
Of course, anyone producing enough eggs to be selling at the market is likely to be feeding grain rather than bugs.
Edit: When we lived in Mexico, the chicken in the small town we stayed in were fed a lot of calendula flowers, which made the skin particularly yellow/orange as well as the yolks.
What really makes those yolks yellow are the amount of greens the chickens get -- not just grass. They'll selectively go after clover, poke, and other forbes before grass when they're allowed to range. My chickens are not free-range, too many dogs in the hood for that, but they go NUTS for kale, beet greens, etc, which they get everday. They also dig kelp supplements when I can find them.
I like this question because I've wondered it myself. My pastured egg source recently started offering 'soy free' pastured eggs. I took this to mean that:
These hens don't have soy included in the feed that is spread on the farm; and,
From this I inferred that just letting chickens run around a farm probably doesn't provide enough food to feed all of them.
My very unscientific test of how pastured eggs are is simply how golden orange the yolk is. The soy free egg yolks seem to be a darker, more vibrant orange. That's good enough for me.
This sounds like a pretty good amount of pasture, compared to most "free-range" operations. The problem is not whether or not they are running around, but if there is food available. If they have a large number of hens in a smallish area, the good weeds and bugs will be gone quickly and they will rely on the feed. If they have a "lazy" breed, the hens might prefer to sit around and eat feed. I would just try them at the right time of the year and check the yolk.
smaller the operation the better, once a farm tries to sell a lot of eggs, they must keep the hens inside more often. Bottom line, go to a farm and see- not easy for everyone but Im lucky and I never buy from a store or even a roadside farmers stand.
The place I get my eggs from says that they are proud of their operation and gladly welcome any visitors to visit their farm. I haven't gone yet but the openness of that statement makes me fairly confident that they are doing their best to give chickens humane treatment. I don't think 100% pastured is possible. I acknowledge though that it will never be perfect. In the winter, they are supplemented with feed and "less than optimal" food such as grass and alfalfa. Even though they are "pastured", I'm sure some chickens are are hesitant to venture out and work for food if there is supplemented feed. When it's later in the spring, I'll be a little more observant of the yolks to see if they're darker...and maybe I'll just take up their offer and visit the farm to see for myself.
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