The reality of pasture-raised cattle, pigs, and chickens is often very different from the ideal, especially when it comes to big agricultural corporations. But when farmers pasture livestock the right way, everyone benefits – from the animals to the farmer, the consumer, and the environment.
What does pasture-raised mean?
It means that animals spend the majority of their lives on pasture, with the freedom to graze and forage. Non-ruminant animals, like chickens and pigs, need to get the majority of their nutrition from supplemental grain, but pasture-raised ruminants, like cattle and sheep, can get all of their nutrients from the pasture itself.
Ideally, pasture-raised animals that don’t need to eat grain should be 100% grass-fed, with nutrient-dense vegetation grown on the pasture. Chickens and pigs, which need supplemental grain, should be fed non-GMO grains, grown with regenerative agricultural practices.
That’s how we run our family farm. But it’s important to be aware of how producers might apply the label, so you can make sure you are getting the best quality.
Because the USDA considers terms like “pasture-raised” to be a marketing label, regulations around what constitutes pastured livestock are not very strict.
The Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) receives upwards of 200+ applications regarding animal raising labeling per week, so it’s difficult to ensure that all standards and regulations pertaining specifically to pastured livestock are being followed.
At Seven Sons, we use the term literally. Our pasture-raised ruminant animals (cattle, sheep, goats, and bison) spend all of their lives on pasture, while pigs and chickens get shelter as needed based on weather and climate conditions.
Weather events or other specific situations may mean that the animals have to be housed for brief periods, but we believe the best place for animals is where they would be in nature. That comes with specific responsibilities and practices.
To ensure that animals have high-quality food available year-round, they need to live on a healthy pasture with high biodiversity.
Regenerative grazing is the rule at Seven Sons because it gives each section of pasture time to bounce back and replenish after each graze. Multispecies grazing makes rotational grazing practices more beneficial because it improves ecological resilience, productivity, and natural control of pests and predators.
Forage management practices include selecting the right plant seeds for the initial perennial pasture establishment, limiting plant species that try to dominate the paddock, and implementing practices to reduce pests and improve the soil.
Regardless of the season, chicken and pigs will get up to 80% of their diet from grain, but their interactions on pasture play an important role in the farm’s ecosystem. Ruminants don’t need and shouldn’t be given grain or grain-by-product supplementation – a healthy pasture provides an ideal diet.
This is a crucial difference between the products we sell that carry the pasture-raised label vs. grass-fed. Our cattle operation ensures our animals only receive fresh or dried grass and forage, making them 100% grass-fed and pasture-raised.
For farms that adhere to the true meaning of pasture-raised, animal welfare tops the list of priorities. Different animals have different needs. For example, pastured poultry has specific seasonal needs.
Because the term pasture-raised only requires that animals have access to outdoor space, there’s no guarantee that the animal actually spent any time outside.
To give this context, chickens like to be covered, so they’re reluctant to go out if adequate protection isn’t provided. This means millions of eggs are sold each year as pasture raised from chickens that might have barely been on pasture.
Because of the various interactions animals have with plants and the overall environment, pasture-raising different livestock increases the environmental benefits of regenerative agriculture practices like rotational grazing.
Chickens, pigs, and sheep forage a variety of plants and move the soil around in different ways.
By encouraging a diverse range of plants to grow and keeping pests in check, pasture-raised livestock helps maintains the biodiversity of the pastures they graze on. This improves carbon sequestration in the soil, helping to reduce soil erosion and preventing water runoff.
Healthier animals make healthier food. Pasture-raised animals become higher-quality food for consumers, by every standard.
Like grass-fed beef, pastured animals that graze on nutrient-dense soils and forages have a better fat profile. Studies repeatedly show that grazing animals don’t just have more omega-3 fatty acids in their meat, but also have a better proportion of omega-3 to omega-6 compared to grain-fed animals.
The difference is more noticeable in cows and other ruminants. However, the American Pastured Poultry Association found that pastured chickens and their eggs also have higher levels of omega-3 and a lower ratio of omega-6 to omega-3. And a Practical Farmers of Iowa study found the same was true of pork.
In addition to healthier fats, pasture-raised animals contain higher concentrations of vitamins and minerals than animals raised on grain. The most noticeable differences are in vitamin E and A, with pasture-raised pork containing up to twice as much vitamin E.
Chicken raised in pasture settings also contains more iron and zinc than grain-fed chickens. The increase in iron and zinc depends on the quality of the pasture, but even this study that compared free-range to cage-fed chickens saw a significant increase in vitamins and minerals. The same applies to the eggs laid by pasture-raised chickens.
Because pasture-raised animals are in an environment closer to what they’re naturally adapted to, they don’t get sick like animals in crowded feedlots. By living outdoors, they’re less stressed, more socialized, and free to move around. This is in direct contrast to how CAFO facilities treat their animals.
Less crowding also means that animals don’t get injured, and access to nutritionally complete food means they don’t need hormones to grow efficiently.
Although many third-party organizations certify agricultural products for labels like pasture-raised, sustainable agriculture, and so on, these labels have very loose regulations when it comes to the USDA.
Any claims made on certifications or labels should be questioned and cautioned. We know this from being inside the industry and visiting other agricultural facilities.
Instead of relying on a label or a certification, choose producers that are transparent about their practices. If sustainable, ethically-produced food is a priority for you, look for farmers who share those values.
Ethical producers are happy to show you how they operate, and willing to answer questions about how they manage their livestock.
There are many common misconceptions about pasture-raised livestock, and a lot of them come from major agricultural distributors and corporations. The biggest misconceptions are that it’s too expensive to raise livestock on pasture and that it’s not a sustainable practice.
While the initial investment for pasture-raised animals is higher, the increased biodiversity and soil health mitigates those costs over time. Less money spent on medicine, vet visits, fertilizer, and pesticides all add up to a more sustainable way of raising livestock.
In addition, healthier soil sequesters more carbon, increases productivity, and reduces water runoff. These benefits lead to not only better pastures but higher quality meat, all without the negative environmental footprint and climate impact of industrial livestock operations.
Many farms can provide success stories and testimonials about how effective raising livestock on pasture can be. We have our own success stories we can point to, and we’re proud of what we’ve achieved.
Our pasture-raised pigs are a vital player in our land management and stewardship process. By raising our pigs on pasture rather than indoors, we improve the nutrient cycling of our paddocks and encourage plant diversity in the ecosystem.
In the past, we’ve successfully used our retired laying hens as part of our pest control strategy, encouraging them to feast on flies and other pests to keep insect populations in check without pesticides.
Our pasture management processes improve the ecosystem on our farm, sequestering more carbon and keeping the local water supply clean.
Here at Seven Sons, pasture-raised livestock just makes sense. Raising animals on pasture means happier, healthier animals that provide higher-quality meat and eggs. Not to mention, the processes that keep the pasture healthy improve the environment and create opportunities to farm more sustainably.
Support pasture-raised livestock farmers who are transparent and take pride in the role they play in the community and ecosystem, and get better quality food!