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What Does it Take to Raise Poultry on Pasture?

By Frances Flower, July 12, 2012  |  Meet the Blogger  |  More Posts by Frances Flower

Ever wondered what it takes to raise pastured poultry?  It’s not quite as simple as opening the barn doors and letting the birds roam free! It takes the right bird (one that can thrive outdoors) as well as a farmer that not only understands the birds and the land, but also how they interact, to make a pastured-poultry system work well.

Since January 2011, Whole Foods Market® has required all our chicken, beef and pork farms to be certified to the Global Animal Partnership’s 5-Step™ Animal Welfare Rating program, and this year we are in the process of having all our turkey vendors certified too. A group of our poultry producers raise pastured birds, which, along with meeting many other animal welfare criteria, earns them a Step rating of 4, 5 or 5+. These birds live continuously on pasture, rangelands, or wooded areas, and must have shelter from the weather and predators, as well as features in the environment to encourage the birds to roam like bushes and shrubs.

To really understand what it takes to raise birds on pasture, I spoke to a few of our suppliers about their farms, why they chose their specific poultry breed and what makes them well-adapted to their environment. I talked to Stuart Joyce and Denis Dronne of Joyce Foods, located in North Carolina. Joyce Foods is a family-operated farm that raises Step 4 chicken using the Poulet Rouge Fermier breed. For those of you struggling with the French pronunciation, this breed is also known as Naked Necks (so called, obviously, for its lack of feathers around the neck).

Joyce Foods went to France looking for a slow-growing, healthy, hardy bird that would flourish in an outdoor environment – this led them to the Naked Neck bird. Stuart Joyce, Live Operations Manager, explains, “Unlike the modern breeds which are fast growing, the Naked Necks take over 80 days to grow, have a much stronger immune system, and can be raised outdoors the way it used to be done.” One of the unique features of the Naked Necks is that they are shaped a little differently making them well-adapted to an outdoor environment.

Stuart goes onto to say, “Since the birds come from a rustic heritage breed, they have a long body, long legs and a longer, smaller breast, giving the birds the ability to roam outside easily. You’ll see them running around and playing with each other – it’s quite the sight!” Joyce Foods Step 4 chicken is currently sold in stores in Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee.

David Pitman, from Pitman Family Farms, raises both Step 5 chicken and turkey David also searched for a hardy, slow-growing chicken and after some research found it in the Rhode Island Red bird. “While they take 12 weeks to reach the market weight (modern day meat birds typically take less than 6 weeks to reach the same weight),” David explains, “they do great in the California climate — they love to run, forage, perch and play. In fact, they are so agile it’s really hard to catch them!” Last year, the Pitmans also had one of their turkey farms rated at a Step 5.

This farm raises several Heritage breeds (descendants of the original wild turkey) – the Narragansett, New Holland, Standard Bronze and the Bourbon Red. And there’s definitely a strong element of “the wild” in these birds. “The turkeys take 8 months to raise and while commercial turkeys can’t fly more than a couple of feet at best, our birds like to roost in the 30 feet tall oak trees that are in their pastures! By growing slower, it allows their bones to develop normally, building wing and leg strength so they can fly, perch and roost — just like their ancestors.”

Pitman Step 5 turkey and chicken are currently sold in our stores on the West Coast.

Last year, Diestel Turkey Ranch received a Step 5+ — the highest step-rating possible! Jason Diestel describes their operation, “We raise Mexican Black (sometimes known as Spanish Black) and American Bronze turkeys. These are the breeds that our grandparents raised in the 1950’s and they have a unique old-fashioned turkey flavor. They really thrive outdoors. Our birds take six months to raise and our farmers have ’the touch‘ — watching and listening to the birds, rotating their pastures at the right time and catering to the birds needs. It takes a really good farmer to run a pastured turkey operation.”

The Diestels also employ a couple of four-legged friends to protect the flocks from predators. “We’ve got an Anatolian Shepherd and a Great Pyrenees that roam the farm and keep coyotes, foxes and bobcats at bay – we’ve had no losses from predators with our dogs on the farm, they do a great job of protecting the turkeys.” Jason goes on to explain that “We received a Step 5+ rating because we don’t transport our turkeys. We’ve had a family owned and operated processing plant since the 70’s which allows us to process the birds on-site so they never have to get on a truck.”

Look for Diestel fresh turkey in Whole Foods Market stores on the West Coast, in the Rocky Mountain region (Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Utah) and in our Southwest stores in Louisiana, Texas, Arkansas and Oklahoma. I’m sure you can now appreciate that raising chickens and turkey on pasture not only takes a farmer with the right skills and knowledge, but also requires the right bird – one that’s slow-growing, hardy and has a strong immune system.

Have you tried pastured poultry? Let me know what you think in the comments below.  

Category: Meat, Animal Welfare

 

21 Comments

Comments

Stacey says ...
This is so great to see. Can WF please try to find pastured poultry to sell in stores in the New York Market... I can't always make it to the Farmer's Market and would really like to know that I can find quality pastured meats at the store!
07/19/2012 2:20:27 PM CDT
Tina Balodis says ...
What type of birds do we get at the Avenue Road store in Toronto? Tina
07/19/2012 2:20:21 PM CDT
Nick McLogic says ...
Man, this makes me so happy to see. Being vegetarian for moral reasons, I REALLY appreciate that these birds get to be birds before being sent to market. I am so happy that WFM has pushed for the 5-Step animal welfare rating system and is bringing healthier, happier animals to the fore. I may not eat meat, but for all my friends who do, this is a great option. I mean, I don't eat rotten fruit, and, in the same vein, I feel no one should have to eat non-rated meat.
07/12/2012 8:33:04 PM CDT
graham says ...
I've moved to buying all my meat from WF, precisely because of the rating system. I really appreciate being able to make informed decisions about the practices used to raise the animals. The best part is - the meat is absolutely delicious, too! When I have friends over, they're always amazed at how great the food taste, and while I'll take some of the credit, I have to admit that I start with great ingredients. The pasture-raised chicken in particular is so superior to factory-farmed chicken, it's actually a little hard to believe until you've tasted it!
07/13/2012 9:29:35 AM CDT
Kelley says ...
Pasture raised poultry is the way to go!! Glad to see it working successfully , maybe more will participate, especially for the Florida market. I will not eat any other kind of poultry. Thanks for your commitment to quality for animals and our food supply.
07/16/2012 11:30:00 AM CDT
john mcdaniel says ...
as a WFM employee and a small farmer focused on sustainability I would like to see more information from the farmers about what feed they use and if it is commercially available. I grow my own chickens on 2 acres (31 hens 3 roosters) and am always looking for info-share on how to improve my farming practices.
07/23/2012 4:10:14 PM CDT
Alexia says ...
Like Tina, I would like to know also what we get at the Square One store in Toronto? Thank you
07/22/2012 9:32:14 PM CDT
Chris says ...
For people in the mid-Atlantic area, we pasture raise chicken that are fed with certified organic, soy-free feed. We are located in Delaware. If you travel to the Delaware beaches, you. An find us at the Historic Lewes Farmers Market.
07/22/2012 6:47:14 AM CDT
Rita says ...
We're starved for seafood until WFM opens in Charlotte. (Only Marine Stewardship Certified seafood). Pastured poultry from local farmers? Nothing like it. And it cooks so much faster than the plastic we were once forced to believe was chicken. Food, now, is so exciting. BRAVO, WFM!
07/23/2012 8:24:43 AM CDT
BT says ...
All of the information I have been able to glean about your poultry farmers pertains to the raising of the birds. I would like information regarding the slaughtering of the birds.
08/28/2012 2:52:02 PM CDT
Nikki - Community Moderator says ...
@BT - Under the Global Animal Partnership's 5-Step Animal Welfare Rating System, annual affidavits are required of each producer, outlining information about raising and handling practices, feed, facility design, environmental conditions, employee training, medical practices and animal welfare at the farm, in transportation, and throughout processing. To verify the information submitted by the producer, an inspection of each producer's operation is conducted annually by Whole Foods Market. Each producer is then required to successfully complete annual third party audits of their slaughter facility that monitor animal welfare according to a rating system developed by world renowned animal welfare and facility design expert, Dr. Temple Grandin. If you would like to learn more about Dr. Grandin and humane slaughter, please visit: http://www.grandin.com/.
08/28/2012 4:26:16 PM CDT
Louise Alpert says ...
I am very interested in pastured turkeys and chickens as well as eggs. All of the ones recommended above are no where near New York City. What do you have available for us cityites? I would love a Bourbon Red or one like it. Please let me know what you can provide. I understand that you have pastured eggs which I would like also. Are they available in your NYC stores?
10/08/2012 3:26:00 PM CDT
Nikki - Community Moderator says ...
@LOUISE - Thanks for your question. Our products vary between store locations so the best option would be to reach out to the store you plan to visit to see what options they carry. You can find a list of stores at http://www.wholefoodsmarket.com/stores/list.
10/09/2012 3:15:45 PM CDT
Hmmmm says ...
You list Joyce foods as a pastured poultry producer yet their website states that the birds are raised in houses. Also aren't Ashley Farms birds grown for Joyce? http://www.ashleyfarms.com/better-than-free-range.php Also the birds in this link don't look like they are on pasture to me https://www.joycefoods.com/shop/poulet-rouge-fermier
10/19/2012 7:19:48 PM CDT
Patrick Rhéaume says ...
Hello, I'm Patrick Rhéaume, we raise Large Black Hogs, and we are interested in raising Turkeys, and Chickens as well. We'd like t learn more about your turkeys, as well as can they pasture with Hogs, or would you suggest different pastures. Please feel free to email, or call me. 231-709-9307 Sincerely patrick Rhéaume Rhéaume's Large Black Hogs
10/30/2012 8:07:08 AM CDT
Norma says ...
Very interested in raising pasture chickens. Live in North Florida. Any info. would be greatly appreciated.
02/13/2013 11:13:14 AM CST
Nikki - Community Moderator says ...
@NORMA - Since we source products from vendors that are responsible for raising the chickens, I would suggest reaching our directly to a vendor. You can either contact your local store for a vendor name in your area or see if one of the vendors listed above can help.
02/13/2013 12:00:26 PM CST
Leslie says ...
Are any of the animals finished with grain?
04/14/2013 2:31:10 PM CDT
Nikki - Community Moderator says ...
@LESLIE - Technically, only cattle can be "finished". I checked with Frances and she said it is possible that some of the chickens would have been fed grain at some point, it would also vary between vendors.
04/18/2013 11:52:56 AM CDT
Kathleen says ...
Hello, I recently read an article in the Washington Post about a rinse solution that is done to chicken several times before packaging. I am wondering what is the method of cleaning chicken before packaging at the facilities Whole Foods purchases chicken from? Kathleen
08/15/2013 8:19:26 PM CDT
Nikki - Community Moderator says ...
@KATHLEEN - Our water chilled chicken complies with USDA regulations. If you would like to ensure your poultry has had minimal contact with chemicals, you should choose an air-chilled chicken or turkey.
08/21/2013 4:32:04 PM CDT