Is Organic Feed Important?

April 5, 2014 – Modesto, CA

To be sure, there are a lot of people asserting the value of organic food but does this extend to livestock and if so, how?  Is organic feed for poultry really important?

To answer this, let’s start with some basics on organic chickens.  It’s commonly understood that one of the best ways to ensure your chickens are healthy is by feeding them an organic diet.  In fact, organic poultry feed is a requirement if poultry is to be labeled organic.  On a certified organic chicken farm, the poultry feed is not allowed to contain any hormones, meat and meal, manure or urea.

But is a “free range” chicken the same?  No, don’t mistake “free range” chicken for organic.  Actually, the only common feature of free-range and organic chicken is that free-range birds are allowed some degree of access to open spaces instead of being cooped up all the time.  Besides that, free-range chickens are still often raised mostly inside, are given ordinary non-organic pre-mixed feed and can be dosed with antibiotics to prevent illness, or with growth hormones to increase weight.  In contrast, organic chickens are only given certified organic grain-based feeds that are free of additives.

So then what are the benefits to people?  Glad you asked.  Pfeiffer, the original authority on biodynamic farming, asserted that chickens fed organic grain began laying earlier, and at faster rates.  In fact, they laid twice as many fertile eggs, and the eggs kept better.  In similar academic research, chickens fed organic food were of significantly greater weight after 32 weeks.  It also showed that the weight of their eggs and egg yolks were greater (Plochberger, 1989).   Many consumers attest that an organic egg not only has a better appearance but tastes better and is healthier.  In fact, a 2001 study at the University of Perugia, Italy, found that chickens raised organically actually taste better.

Organic chicken meat contains up to 65% less fat than non-organic.  This leaner chicken means better value for your money, faster cooking time and offers healthier choice of protein.   Moreover, studies indicate that organic chicken actually contains “good” fats – particularly polyunsaturated fats and Omega-3 fatty acids – that lower cholesterol, as well as more Vitamin A. But that’s not all, the best chefs assert that organic chicken is better in flavor – that’s according to the American Culinary Federation.

So there’s a lot of ‘up-side’ for people, but how about the birds?  One of the greatest benefits of choosing organic chicken feed is all the things that it does not include, such as animal by-products, unhealthy chemicals, pesticides, and fillers.  Organic chickens are raised ethically and humanely. Instead of being cooped up in overcrowded henhouses or in hatches (called battery cages) known as  “factory farms,” they are more frequently allowed time and space to range in the open and to forage for grass, seeds, insects, and worms after their scheduled feed.

If organic chickens are given mixed feed, every ingredient has to be certified as organic.  And it bears repeating, organic chickens are not given antibiotics, growth hormones, or vaccines, nor are they given any routine or preventative veterinary treatments.  And in following, no additives are introduced into the meat after the chicken has been killed.  As an added plus, by eating organic chicken, you also make an indirect but significant contribution to environmental conservation.  Since the chickens are reared in cleaner and more hygienic surroundings, as close to nature as possible, there are also fewer flies and insects to spread disease.

And that leads us to consumer health – children and fetuses are most vulnerable to pesticide exposure because their immune systems, bodies, and brains are still developing.  It’s widely understood that exposure at an early age can cause developmental delays, behavioral disorders, and motor dysfunction.  In addition, pregnant women are more vulnerable due to the added stress that pesticides put on their already taxed organs. Plus pesticides can be passed in the womb from mother to child, as well as through breast milk. Some exposures can cause delayed effects on the nervous system, even years after the initial exposure.

Now, most of us have an accumulated build-up of pesticide exposure in our bodies due to numerous years of exposure. This chemical “body burden” as it is medically known may lead to health issues such as headaches, birth defects, and added strain on weakened immune systems.  Because of this, it’s helpful to understand what the federal government allows in feed or to be used in conventional production:

  • Broiler chickens – antibiotics, animal byproducts, pesticides, arsenic-based drugs (growth hormones are prohibited)
  • Egg laying hens – antibiotics, animal byproducts, pesticides, arsenic-based drugs

And then there’s Samonella – nasty stuff! “Two recent studies performed independently of each other confirm that organically produced food is safer and can actually save money in the long term. A report from the University of Florida has found that salmonella is the leading disease-causing pathogen found in food, leading to more than $3 billion every year in public health costs. Salmonella is a microbe that is often found in poultry and egg products. An unrelated study, published in November of last year by the University of Georgia, found that there is a significantly lower rate of salmonella contamination in organic chickens compared to conventional chickens. Taken together, the results of these two studies reveal the potential for organic poultry farming to significantly reduce the risk to human health from food pathogens, as well as the cost to society of treating and eliminating those pathogens.”  — Beyond Pesticides, May 13, 2011

The University of Georgia’s Center for Food Safety released a study showing the comparative rates of salmonella contamination in both feces and feed at organic and conventional broiler poultry farms. There were three organic and four conventional farms included in the study, all owned by the same company. The researchers found that:

  • In examining fecal samples, 38.8% of those from conventional farms contained salmonella, compared with only 5.6% from organic farms.
  • For feed, the results were similar: 27.5% of feed on the conventional farms had salmonella, while only 5% of organic feed was contaminated.

The study also examined the prevalence of salmonella that are resistant to antibiotic treatment and compared the results of organic versus conventional. Alarmingly, the results showed that:

  • Resistance to the antibiotic streptomycin is 36.2% at conventional farms, compared to 25% at organic.
  • Perhaps even more significant, multidrug resistance to six different antibiotic treatments (ampicillin, streptomycin, amoxicillin, cephalothin, ceftiofor, and cefoxitin) is at 39.7% on the conventional farms, whereas none of the organic birds show resistance to this combined treatment.

So as you can see raising poultry organically has huge advantages.  Let’s finish with a just few feeding tips:


  • We recommended that the starter diet be fed for the first four weeks of age.  After that, birds from four to six weeks old can be fed a mixture of half starter and half finisher.  Finally, from six weeks to market, the finisher feed should be used.
  • Approximately, 6.5 lb of starter and 20 lb of finisher are needed to produce a roaster with a live market weight of about 9 lb or a carcass weight of about 6 lb.


  • The 16% protein feed for laying hens should be fed from the start of egg production on through peak production and up to the point that egg production has declined to 85%.
  • At 85% production, the flock will average about six eggs per week from each hen. In a good flock, the birds can stay at or above this production level until 45 weeks of age.  The 14% protein laying hen diet can be used after egg production dips below 85%.