One of the major perks of raising your chickens for meat is that you have a say in what goes into (or doesn’t ) go into raising your organic meat chickens.
When you control how you raise your own meat, you can make important decisions about how to care for them, how they will live, and what products you will or won’t use in the rearing process.
In this guide, we’ll touch on the basics for raising broilers or meat chickens as organically and ethically as possible.
What is an Organic Meat Chickens?
When we hear the word organic, we usually get a good feeling about where the meat or product has come from and the care that has gone into the animal.
But the truth is, organic may mean one thing to someone and another to someone else. So, in this article, we are focusing not only on the USDA’s definition of organic.
But also that “good feeling” definition…which focuses on giving your chickens the most natural life possible with all the benefits of the USDA definition:
“USDA certified organic foods are grown and processed according to federal guidelines addressing, among many factors, soil quality, animal raising practices, pest and weed control, and use of additives.
Organic producers rely on natural substances and physical, mechanical, or biologically based farming methods to the fullest extent possible.”
If you plan to label your chickens and sell them as organic, make sure you do your due diligence to follow USDA guidelines.
Once you’ve checked all the boxes, there are a few additional things you can do to ensure you are ethically raising organic meat.
Sourcing Your Eggs For Organic Meat Chickens
If you’re organically raising chickens, your job starts once your chicks hatch. It can be difficult to ensure chickens your eggs were laid by organically raised chickens.
In truth, the only way you’ll know for sure is if they’ve come from your own organic chickens.
It’s a true chicken-before-the-egg conundrum. But when you’re first starting, you get a free pass on eggs if you’re incubating from an unknown chicken.
If you’re ordering broilers, as most will, you’ll have to work with what you get. This is due to the difficult process of breeding large meat birds.
Certain breeds are considered excellent meat birds that you can raise (and breed) on your own organically.
Chicken Breeds That Reproduce Easily
And while it will not produce eggs as quickly or frequently as a heritage breed might, you can still get eggs from them.
Though birds developed for fast growth and large carcasses reproduce poorly, you can do it.
Your best bet for naturally reproducing meat chickens will be a large heritage breed or a version of the Ranger chicken.
Raising Organic Chicks in the Brooder
Raising chicks in a brooder organically consists of three main focuses: cleanliness, space, and feed.
Chicks must also be kept warm and receive adequate amounts of freshwater, so there aren’t many differences in raising organic chicks vs. non-organic.
The main difference between raising chicks naturally is your feed choice.
Some may argue that feeding chicks medicated feed is not an organic way of raising chickens.
However, the “finished product” has usually expelled all medications from chick-hood by processing day.
With that being said, if you didn’t give your chicks organically labeled feed, you may not be living up to your own standards.
The danger in forgoing medicated feeds is the strong possibility of chicks contracting coccidia and dying.
Medicated feeds do a fantastic job of preventing coccidiosis during a chick’s most fragile days.
Typically meat chickens are moved from starter feed to grower/adult feed at about three weeks. You can see, they will have been on grower feed for quite a while before being processed for consumption.
As your chicks grow, you may also want to consider feeding organic scraps and food from your farm. Check out this article to see what baby chicks eat in nature.
It’s important not to become discouraged by a slower growth rate if you feed a natural diet…it’s completely normal when raising chickens organically,
Moving Chickens Outside
Once your chicks are old enough to move outdoors, it’s time to get them into the grass.
If you’re raising broilers, give them an ample amount of space. The rules for spatial considerations change often.
But as of the writing of this article, the recommended minimum space requirements are at least one square foot per 2.25 pounds of chickens.
When it comes down to it, that is not a lot of space, and cramming a large flock into that kind of coop will only promote problems (like fighting and hygiene issues for the birds.)
We like to give our chickens more than enough space to allow them to spread their wings and act like chickens.
Their life should be as close to natural as possible to raise chickens in an organic “way.”
Many organic chicken farmers employ what is known as a “chicken tractor.” This allows chickens to have safe access to the pasture, bugs, and grit in the natural environment.
Chicken tractors are usually built to be light enough to be moved by a single person. Move them daily to keep chickens on fresh, clean grass.
Tractors are also built to provide birds with protection from the elements and predators. It also allows them access to the outdoors.
If you’ve ever moved a chicken from the indoors to a sunny outdoor coop, you’ll quickly see how much they enjoy the sun.
Broilers will stretch and lay down while taking in the sun. You’ll soon recognize the importance of this type of environment for the happiness of the chicken.
Avoiding Herbicides and Pesticides
You move your chickens to the outdoors. Now ensure that the pasture you’ll be placing them on has been free from pesticides and herbicides.
Check with the USDA to ensure the appropriate amount of time has passed before placing chickens, intended as organic, on any pasture.
Notice if your property butts up against a neighboring farm that utilizes pesticides and herbicides. If so, ensure you have given enough space between the non-organic property and where you’re placing your chickens.
The amount of space you need will depend on the type of chemical used, the water flowage in the area, and even typical wind drifts.
As you can see, there are many variables to consider when keeping your chickens completely organic.
Vaccinations and Avoiding Illness
Most chicks are vaccinated at one or two days old for typical diseases such as Mareks, Newcastle, and other common illnesses.
Always check with the USDA to ensure the vaccination you are planning to use with your flock is approved for organic farms and labels.
With that being said, other medications are prohibited by the USDA unless the animal is sick.
It is considered unethical to withhold treatment of a sick animal to maintain its organic status.
Therefore, strong and organized care practices, careful animal selection, and monitoring are the best defenses against spreading diseases.
You’ll need a cleaning schedule, a rotational grazing plan, and a strong understanding of common illnesses and parasites.
You will need to combat them as naturally as possible, as soon as possible.
Ethics to Consider when Raising Organic Meat Chickens
These are some of the more obvious things to avoid for an organic operation. There are also ethical situations and practices to consider when planning your flock’s care.
Beak trimming is going to be an absolute non-negotiable issue. It is inhumane to trim or remove a beak from a chicken, even if it prevents pecking.
First off, chickens use their beaks to eat, preen, protect themselves, and communicate with each other. It would be rude to remove their ability to do the things they do naturally.
Give chickens enough fresh air, space, food, and water. Then there is little reason for them to peck at one another. This is the main reason large operations debeak their chickens.
Give chickens as much space as possible to prevent unsanitary conditions. This also helps with pecking order issues and gives them the exercise. They need this to maintain a healthy (yet desirable) weight.
We Believe Organic Meat Chickens Should Be Natural Chickens
In nature, chickens love to scratch for goodies. They enjoy flapping their wings, taking dust baths, and sunbathing in the fresh air.
Unfortunately, there is a sad truth about organically labeled meat available in the stores. It doesn’t always come from birds with the luxury of living a natural lifestyle.
While some of these things are not necessary to be labeled as organic, we believe they are just as important as everything else on this list.
Treating our chickens with respect. This allows us to appreciate the life they’ve given for us to nourish our bodies.
For a full guideline of USDA accepted practices for raising organic poultry, review these Guidelines for Organic Certification of Poultry.