pasture raised chickens foraging for bugs

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Pasture raised chickens are birds that are rotated regularly onto new grass. This avoids soil depletion or nutrient (poop) build-up that occurs when birds are raised in a stationary coop or building. These pasture-raised chickens can be broilers (meat birds) or laying hens. Both enterprises take advantage of seasonality & often occur on the same farms. Raising laying hens on grass and committing to daily rotation has huge benefits for the birds, in terms of their happiness & health, as well as ours as consumers. What’s more, raising chickens on grass is beneficial for the environment. They contribute to building the soil, distributing valuable nutrients (poop, again) & by disrupting pest life-cycles that threaten larger ruminants.

It’s important to distinguish between pasture raised chickens & free range chickens. We discussed previously in this post here, but the key take away is that while some birds can be raised out doors under a free range label, they are often still kept inside a covered building their entire lives. Free range simply means a producer is not using a battery cage.

Now that we have that out of the way, let’s get in-depth on the benefits associated with raising hens on pasture.

The Rise of Pasture-Raised Eggs

No official definition exists for ‘pasture raised’ as either a marketing label or as a farm practice. It is commonly taken to mean birds are raised in light duty, mobile structures that can be relocated frequently to make the most of fresh grass. These birds are a highly seasonal product & our birds move indoors for the duration of the winter months.

Considerable work has been done by small producers to raise awareness regarding pasture raised chickens. As a result, demand is growing for eggs produced through these practices – and with good reason. Managing birds in a system like this is labour intensive. It requires a farmer or employee to move the mobile shelter daily, supplying water & supplementary grain throughout the season. A production model like this isn’t appealing to larger producers who manage tens of thousands of birds, nor is it feasible.

For anyone looking to support a small family farm, choosing pasture raised eggs is a great way to do so.

Health Benefits of Pasture-Raised Eggs

In order to fully understand the nutritional advantage that pasture raised eggs have over conventional eggs, it’s important to consider their diet. Conventional hens are fed a high protein mix of vegetable grains, supplemented with a commercial mineral mix. Conventional chickens cannot be fed animal proteins of any kind, by law. Pasture raised birds are fed primarily a grain mix & a mineral supplement as well. They also enjoy the added diversity in their diet of foraged insects, worms and other microorganisms present at the soil surface.

This diet more closely resembles what chickens, as omnivores, should be consuming. In my opinion, this is the essential difference between the two & the greatest mile-marker for nutrient density.

So with that said, what are the key differences?

Eggs from pasture raised hens are widely accepted to have elevated levels of vitamins A, D & E. They boast a higher level of antioxidants, carotenoids and choline. These are all essential for cell function in the human body, and sadly, common deficiencies in the standard American diet. The show-stopper however has long been the omega 3 fatty acids present in pasture raised eggs and the stark difference in the omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acid ratios. Pasture raised eggs are as much as 2-3 times richer in omega 3 fatty acids.

If you need a quick refresher on why omega 3 fatty acids matter, they are crucial for women’s health, particularly during periods of heavy stress & physiological change such as menopause. Omega 3 fatty acids help support coronary function & regulate cholesterol levels as well as overall triglycerides. Omega 3 fatty acids also help maintain brain function, immune system & nervous system performance.

Given all this, I find it particularly tragic that eggs were so maligned for contributing to elevated cholesterol levels. Much of the science at the time of the recommendations to cut back or limit eggs in our diet was based on battery cage production systems. Studies could not functionally have included a more wholistic egg production system such as eggs from pasture raised chickens for comparison.

Environmental Impact

We would still consider chickens essential to the overall functioning of our farm even without selling a single egg. Chickens are an incredibly valuable part of the farms ecosystem. We really see this during periods without them. So much extra kitchen waste ends up in the garbage! Chickens are incredible little trash compactors; ripping food scraps apart with their feet, aerating and turning compost over & eating anything that moves, and I mean anything. I have seen a chicken eat a mouse & I was absolutely not prepared for that!

On a larger scale, chickens play a key role in carbon sequestration and grassland rehabilitation, or regeneration. When crop land is tilled for the production of annual grains, massive amounts of carbon are released into the atmosphere. By converting to perennial grasslands, carbon is instead pulled from the air and trapped in the soil. Chickens accelerate this by stimulating grass & forage growth. They do this through the distribution of nitrogen rich manures. If chickens are incorporated into a rotational system that includes large ruminants, then chickens help break down cow & sheep manures thereby making them available to the soil sooner.

In a conventional system the manure produced by chickens in noxious. Large lagoons of chicken manure are a biohazard, an eye sore in the community and a liability for the farmer. Distributing chickens throughout an extensively-managed system like pasture helps keep the nutrients in balance.

pasture raised chickens foraging for bugs
pasture raised chickens foraging for bugs

Ethical considerations

When chickens get to live like chickens, they’ll taste like chickens too

Michael Pollan

Without a doubt, the battery cage system is a brutal and inhumane system. Finally, the commercial poultry industry has begun the phase out of their use after years of public pressure.

This leaves the question though of alternatives & the question of ethics. Has anybody stopped to ask a hen what she wants? What makes her happy or fulfills her? Raising hens on pasture comes about as close to that as we can get.

To better understand why, it’s important to know where chickens come from on the evolutionary ladder. Chickens have managed to colonize the entire habitable world. They are present on every continent except Antarctica & they have adapted to a wide variety of climates & ecosystems. They originated in the south Asian jungle. Prior to domestication they lived in trees for safety and foraged on the forest floor.

I would love to see a system set up where chickens could be raised in a managed woodlot. Kept alongside cultivated mushroom and pig rearing would be ecologically beneficial, but I haven’t come across anything like this yet. In the meantime, raising chickens on grassland pasture allows the to roost overnight & disperse in the morning for a full day of foraging through the grass before returning to the safety of the coop. This system most closely resembles a chickens genetic ancestry & takes their instinctive reflexes into account.

A chicken manifesting its destiny may or may not be an important decision for you when buying eggs. On the off chance it is, then free-roaming, dirt-scratching, roost-perching chickens are what you are seeking.

How to Identify Eggs from Pasture Raised Chickens

If you are deadset on making the switch to pasture raised hens, then the next challenge is to go about finding them on the market. Right off the bat I will tell you to stop buying eggs in the grocery store. Grocery chains rely on a massive supply contract that stipulates a volume beyond the scale of what pastured producers can meet. It simply isn’t scaleable to the degree that would be needed to meet the demands of a grocery warehouse with locations that span the country.

Finding Eggs Outside the Grocery Store

If you already shop at a local green grocer or butcher shop, chances are better they have a local supplier. The downside here is that they tend to sell out fast because everyone else wants the same thing you do! Farmer’s markets are another great option & a good way to make a social outing of shopping. I don’t know about you, but I dread going to the grocery store. The farmer’s market is a totally different story!

You can also try finding suppliers like us on social media and purchase from them directly. As I have suggested before, make sure you can visit at least once before committing & judge for yourself if the farm is in line with your values and priorities.

There are currently no labelling requirements for eggs in Canada beyond their grade, and if applicable, their organic certification. Any label that touts the eggs as ethical or humanely produced depends entirely on the farm. If they are utilizing third party certification such as SPCA then it bears looking into to qualify what exactly their standard for humane is.

When you do find bonafide pasture raised eggs, be prepared for a bit of sticker shock. These eggs are worth every penny but they are a labour intensive enterprise for farmers & the price of the end product reflects that.


Whether your quest was for humane handling for chickens or a hormone health, whatever brought you here is worth searching for. Pasture raised hens are happier & have the freedom to express their natural behaviours free of a commercial barn or a battery cage.

On pasture enjoying fresh air, sunshine and a bonanza of bugs, hens turn all of these elements into nutrient dense eggs. Each egg is loaded with bioavailable vitamins, minerals, essential fatty acids and antioxidants vital to our longterm health and wellbeing.

While far from cheap or widely available pasture raised eggs are a no brainer for anyone looking to up their egg consumption in a healthy and ethical way. I hope this has helped your decision making a little easier!

Catch you next week for a deep dive into keeping variety in the kitchen and utilizing eggs to their full potential in your baking and cooking journey. Stay tuned!

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