Late in my second season of raising pastured poultry on a small scale, I have become aware of some fundamental, fatal conceptual flaws in the operation. The implication of these is that, unintentionally and without malice, pastured poultry producers are foisting a scam on their market. The problems stem from basic lack of understanding about what words like "sustainable" mean and to some extent from denial about the realities of chicken production, both industrial and on the small farm.
The two biggest unintentional lies are about pastured poultry's being environmentally friendly and its being humane. It is neither. In fact, I have realized that it is actually worse than a well-managed confinement operation in both respects.
Environmentally friendly, sustainable production of livestock is first and foremost a function of what and how the animals are fed. A sustainable farm animal is one that eats things people do not or cannot eat: grasses, bugs, wild range and pasture foods; and in some cases garbage, offal, etc. Feeding livestock on grains, soybeans, and other intensively-raised crops that are perfectly good human food is not "green," no matter how you do it. Even if these crops are raised organically, it is still a waste of food and farm resources to grow this high-quality food then feed it to animals that will turn 90% of it into waste and only 10% of it into human-usable protein and calories. The second concern for sustainable livestock raising is stocking (number of animals per acre). Sustainable animals are raised at low enough density that they do not degrade the pastures and rangelands on which they feed. Stocking rates need to be adjusted based on particular local circumstances to avoid doing this.
Pastured poultry fails on both of these. Producers will sometimes give the impression that our birds are dining on fresh greens and bugs. In fact, they are getting the vast bulk of their calories from conventional poultry feed. Even generous estimates are that the birds might get 20% of their nutrition from foraging; my experience suggests more like 10%. Add to this the extra feed waste in an outdoor operation from spills and weather, plus the lowered feed-to-animal conversion ratios during hot or cold spells, and the average pastured chicken probably has used MORE conventional feed than a factory-raised bird of the same size.
As for impact on the environment, pastured poultry are overstocked. How do I know this? Well two reasons. First, when, for some reason, I wind up with a pasture pen that has fewer birds in it than usual, those birds grow noticably faster than identical, same-age birds kept at the standard stocking rate. Second, pastured poultry producers have told me that they need to lime their fields from time to time to counteract the increasing acidity from the accumulated effects of manure. In other words, the fields are overstocked. An additional problem is that all this manure on the overstocked pastures represents one of those unregulated, unmonitorable, untrackable sources of non-point source polution for groundwater and stream water.
Another impression that pastured poultry producers like to give is that our birds are happy birds, treated humanely. But if our birds are treated so well, why are our mortality rates so much higher than those of conventional confinement operations? The chicken that is almost universally used by pastured poultry and conventional producers is the Cornish cross, a collection of hybrid strains bred for extremely fast growth rates and extreme laziness. These birds do not benefit from outdoor raising. Indeed, they suffer from it. They have very poor tolerance for heat and cold. They are terrible foragers. They are easy pickings for predators. Humane raising of a cornish cross chicken would be in climate-controlled confinement with a reasonable stocking rate. It is most definitely NOT outdoor raising exposed to the elements and the carnivores. Some other (probably just about ANY other) breed would be a better choice; but the market demands the big fleshy breasts and fat chubby carcasses of the cornish cross, so that is what we raise. It's true, we don't debeak our birds. We let the raccoons do that for us when they try to chew our birds' heads off through the sides of the pens at night. And well-run confinment operations do not debeak either.
The final marketing claim for pastured poultry is the quality of the birds. And it is true, a fresh pastured chicken has a juiciness, texture, and flavor that grocery store chickens rarely approach. But this is a function of freshness, not outdoor raising. Fresh birds that were raised in well-managed confinement also have this excellent quality. Much is made of the fact that our pastured birds are antibiotic and hormone-free. Well, no one gives their chickens hormones; not us, not Tyson. The Cornish Cross already grows dangerously fast (if overfed they tend to keel over from cardiac failure); hormones would be an extremely bad idea. Many pastured poultry producers DO feed medicated feed (with coccidiostats, technically not an anibiotic but still a drug) for the first 2 or 3 weeks of life, same as everyone else. And, again, a well-run confinment operation with good litter management can do without coccidiostats as easily as pastured birds can.
Pastured chickens are not green birds or happy birds, any more than the conventionally raised chickens are. A real green chicken could perhaps be raised; but it will not be a cornish cross raised in a little bottomless cage or open-air day-range pen out in an over-manured field.
Sigh... back to the drawing board.