When we talk to people about our chickens we are often asked the question: “Are they organic?” It’s not possible to respond with a straight yes or no answer, and this blog post is part two of a series to address this question.
- Farming Practices
At Sommerlad Poultry, we pasture raise our chickens using regenerative farming practices, which means we continually build up and improve the biology and health of our soil and land, and don’t use agricultural chemicals, fertilizers, pesticides or herbicides.
We raise our chickens in very small flocks, using shelters that are designed to be portable, so we can move them across our farm with a tractor, to give our chickens access to fresh clean forage areas.
When we move a chicken shelter, the old forage area is given time to rest, sanitise and recover, before the shelter is ever returned to the same site. This respite from chickens allows the forage area to grass-over, and also allows some disease organisms to be killed by the action of the sun.
The amount of time before the shelter is returned to the same site depends on factors like the local environment and the seasonal variations: we have to observe, and respond, to the biological changes of our land.
To improve our chickens’ shelter and forage environment, we plant trees, such as the Tagasaste or ‘tree lucerne’ below.
Our chicken is produced as an integral part of a sustainable whole-farm plan, meaning we must plan how many chickens, and other livestock, we can successfully pasture-raise on our farm, throughout the changing seasons.
Our home farm ‘Kildare’ is a diverse 1,300 acre property, with altitude rising from approx. 900 through to 1100 metres, and gently undulating grazing paddocks rising to steeper hills. It is well-watered by natural springs and dams, and as well as our chickens, we also manage goats and cattle.
Our chickens are given the opportunity to genuinely free range forage in our paddocks, and in return, they continually improve our land, by returning nutrients and aeration to the soil.
When we took over our farm we found many of the paddocks overtaken by African Lovegrass, like the one pictured below in Autumn.
In just 18 months we began to see the effects of our regenerative farming practices. The same paddock is pictured below in spring, and shows how the African Lovegrass no longer has the same strangle hold, and other pasture species are able to return, particularly where the chickens have worked and fertilised the ground. We also continue to flail-mow the paddock to lay back down carbon.
Our regenerative methods can also be referred to as ‘organic’ or ‘biological’ farming.
The Australian Organic Standard, under its section titled ‘Livestock Production Principles and Aims’ it states:
“Where appropriate, livestock are encouraged for use as part of a dynamic organic production system. Livestock may contribute to the organic farming system in the following ways:
- Improving and maintaining the fertility of the soil;
- Controlling weeds through well managed grazing;
- Diversifying the biology and interactions of the farm.”
In contrast to raising chickens using portable shelters, is a “fixed-shed” system like the one pictured below.
The picture above is representative of large-scale free range chicken meat production in Australia. Large-scale organic chicken meat production is similar, however stocking density can be lower, depending on certification standards. The sheds are fixed in one place on the property, and each successive batch of chickens is given access to the same forage area. This system allows the shed to be fitted-out with automated feeding and watering systems, and reduces labour requirements. A farmer cannot justify the investment in a fitted-out shed like this, without committing to producing large batches of chickens per shed.
When this type of fixed-shed system is coupled with fast growing strains of meat chicks, that are bought-in from the intensive chicken industry, large quantities of relatively low-cost free range and organic chicken meat is regularly available on supermarket shelves.
We offer this information out of a desire to equip conscientious consumers with a better understanding of farming practices. We hope this will help them make informed purchasing decisions, rather than having to rely solely on label terminology. Our information comes from our own hands-on experience in the Australian meat chicken industry, including intensive and alternative production systems.