Raising Omega-3-Rich Chicken and Eggs with Pasture and Proper Feed

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Photo by Leon Werdinger
In a mixed-access system, a chick might find a protein-rich caterpillar, while a hen can graze a garden plot for bugs and fresh greens. A diverse mix of forage, insects, worms and grains will guarantee high-quality, omega-3-rich egg and meat products.

In response to news that Omgea-6s and Omega-3s are out of balance in the standard Western diet, health-minded consumers now purchase pasture-raised poultry meat and eggs. However, as demand increases, many consumers are priced out of healthful food markets. Thankfully, small-scale poultry providers — oftentimes called “flocksters” — offer us a workable model to produce omega-3-maximized chicken, eggs, and other poultry products on a modest budget.

To maximize omega-3s, budding backyard flocksters should incorporate feed amendments and free-range practices. Additionally, you should source or grow high-quality, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Certified Organic grains and greens to include in an intentional feed regimen.

Admittedly, intensively managed sustainable poultry operations can be complicated, but with these three general rules, you’ll fulfill your flock’s forage and feed needs, and produce high-omega-3 meat and eggs for the dinner table.

Rule 1: Put Poultry on Pasture

Many studies report an immediate omega-3 boost in eggs and meat when poultry are pastured because, in general, weeds are higher in omega-3s than seeds.

Mike Badger, the executive director and publisher of the American Pastured Poultry Producers Association (APPPA), says that in addition to higher concentrations of vitamins E and D, the “absolutely flooring result” of his organization’s 2013 study was that, compared with the USDA omega-6 to omega-3 reference ratio of 15-to-1, the meat from pastured birds fed industry-standard rations had, on average, an 8-to-1 fatty-acid ratio. Meat from birds fed no-soy rations was even better: 3-to-1. (See APPPA’s full results.)

Grazing experts generally agree that green and leafy forages maximize omega-3s, so choose clovers, alfalfa, and purslane, which are also much higher in protein, calcium, and carotene than grasses. Given that the pasture in the APPPA study included orchard grass and crabgrass, in addition to clover, omega-oriented flocksters should be able to balance the ratio even further with high-omega forage blends.

If pasture doesn’t grow year-round where you live, supplement grain feed with alfalfa hay, or grow ryegrass and other plants indoors. Southern flocksters can even extend their birds’ grazing season year-round by planting winter-hardy cover crops from the brassica family, such as mustard greens.

Rule 2: Raise Soy-Free Chicken

Even with phenomenal pasture, poultry still require grain-based feed to provide energy, protein, and nutrients. When helping to formulate feed, animal nutritionist Jeff Mattocks asks, “What’s readily available locally? What can we use to hit the certain protein level we need, the certain energy content we need?”

While soy is a good source of protein and energy, it’s also high in omega-6s. However, soybeans are generally one of the most available and inexpensive protein sources in much of North America. So, if you have access to good-quality, whole-roasted, non-hexane-extracted soybeans, they are an attractive option for many poultry producers.

One such farmer is Dave Bishop of PrairiErth Farm in Atlanta, Illinois, who says, “You can’t assume all grain is the same. Like any food, it depends on the cultivar, and where and how it’s grown.” Mattocks concurs, especially when soy is locally abundant: “People aren’t discussing the differences between processed soy and whole-roasted soy.”

Rule 3: Incorporate Omega-3 Chicken Feed Supplements

To maximize omega-3 concentrations in your birds’ meat and eggs, consider these four feed amendments.

Flax seeds boost the omega-3 fatty acid content of eggs from conventionally raised hens by six to eight times. However, because feeding flax can cause digestive problems and slow growth, Mattocks recommends keeping flax below 5 percent of the total feed ration. Flax also enhances omega-3 levels in poultry meat. One study found that feeding 10 percent flax 24 days before processing provides the optimum omega-3 enrichment of breast meat, and the optimal enrichment of thigh meat only required five days.

Earthworms are a great source of protein and long-chain fatty acids. Although birds on pasture will find and eat a few earthworms, you can make these wrigglers a more significant part of your birds’ diet if you or someone you know vermicomposts. (Learn more about vermicomposting.)

Hemp seeds and seed oil are often added to poultry feeds, and their use should increase if the United States removes hemp cultivation restrictions. In 2012, a Poultry Sciencestudy found that adding up to 20 percent hemp seed and up to 12 percent hemp seed oil to egg-layers’ diets did not adversely affect hen performance, and raised eggs’ overall omega-3 concentration.

Fish meal is an excellent source of concentrated protein and long-chain omega-3 fatty acids. Further, fish meal can be a sustainable source of fatty acids when made from Atlantic menhaden, a fish historically applied to land as a fertilizer.

A word of caution: Some people report that fish meal affects the taste of broiler meat, especially when fed in higher concentrations over long periods of time.

Practice the Three Omega-3 Chicken Rules

Michael Pollan says “You are what what you eat eats, too.” In this case, when you eat poultry meat and eggs from birds raised on pasture and on high-quality, high-omega-3 feeds, you’ll raise the concentration of omega-3 fatty acids in your diet. Omega-3s are no panacea, but by bringing the omega-6 to omega-3 ratio closer to 1-to-1, you can positively affect your cardiovascular health and, possibly, mental wellbeing.

For more information, visit the MOTHER EARTH NEWS Guide To Healthy Fats and Pastured Meat.

Organic Poultry Feeds

For those flocksters who’d prefer to leave feed-mixing to the professionals, check out these poultry grain providers who ship within the United States.

Manna Pro’s Certified Organic line of poultry feeds includes starter crumbles, grower crumbles, layer pellets, and scratch grains.

Founded in 1974, Modesto Milling has focused on producing organic feed options since 2007. In addition to its standard Certified Organic line, Modesto now offers Certified Organic soy-free and corn- and soy-free lines in response to concerns over human health, and based on their own agricultural philosophy.

As a 100 percent Certified Organic and soy-free company, New Country Organics is committed to environmentalism and animal health — just give their manifesto a perusal. Additionally, customers can choose wheat-free and corn-free options from among their specialty whole-grain layer feeds.

Nutrena’s Certified Organic, Nature Smart line contains prebiotics and probiotics aimed at culturing your bird’s gut microbiome.

For omega-oriented producers, Purina Animal Nutrition’s Layena Plus Omega-3 line is formulated to provide eggs averaging 200 milligrams of omega-3 (three times the omega-3s found in a conventional industrial egg). For those prioritizing the organic label, Purina’s newest Certified Organic line takes organic mainstream with Starter-Grower, Layer Pellets or Crumbles, and Scratch Grains. (Read more about this line, including ingredient labels.)

The Roberts family has processed grain in Nebraska since 1987, and Robert’s Seed has been Certified Organic since 1991. They’ll ship you product in quantities as small as a paper bag and as large as a full container-load. In addition to corn and soy, Roberts includes wheat, barley, and oats in its chicken feeds.

Pastured Poultry Seed Mixes

Peaceful Valley Omega-3 Chicken Forage Blend: includes alfalfa, clover and flax.

Poultry Package: includes yellow dent corn, grain sorghum, chard, field pumpkins, millet, peas, oats, flax, and tobacco (to kill mites).

Happy Hen Forage Seed: includes ryegrass, fescue, clover, millet, radish, buckwheat, peas, and turnip.