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What Does it Take to Raise Poultry on Pasture?

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.