Explaining The Carbon Cycle: The Big Reason to Raise Chickens on Pasture

We raise chickens on pasture for many reasons. Of course, it's better for the birds because like any animal, they belong outside. To raise them any other way would be unnatural.

But if you're reading this blog then you probably get that already. And it comes as no surprise to you how horrible indoor livestock farms are for animal, environmental, and human health.

What you might not know about is how exactly livestock like chickens fit into the larger cycles of an ecosystem when raised outdoors. More specifically, the carbon cycle which connects every living thing. 

More Than A Chicken Farm

Carbon is everywhere - it's in the oceans, the atmosphere, and the soil. And it's constantly being absorbed and released in cycles that have gone on forever.

On our farm, we raise chickens. But we're just as concerned with the health of our soils and grasses as that of our birds. This is because they're all connected. Or put another way, they're all made up of the same stuff (like carbon!) If we don't care for them equally then we risk an imbalance in which everything may suffer.  

How Everything Is Connected With Carbon

Chickens enjoy eating grass. Like all living things, grass contains carbon. As the chickens eat, that carbon is absorbed into their bodies. A portion of it is used to help them grow, while another portion is exhaled into the air.

The grasses and other plants yet to be eaten absorb carbon from the air in the form of carbon dioxide and convert it into plant material, effectively storing the carbon in their leaves, roots, and stems.

When the birds finally do devour those plants, more carbon is absorbed into their bodies and the cycle continues.

But there's more to it than that.

Anyone that's raised chickens knows they can be messy. And by messy, we mean they poop... kind of a lot. Their manure of course contains carbon along with other nutrients that are deposited into soil. 

Chickens and other grazing animals do not stay in place for long. They move on to fresh forage, and the soil behind them is given time to rest. It is a symbiotic relationship in that the plants provide food for the animals and the animals then fertilize the plants with their manure. The end result of this fertilization is more carbon stored in the soil instead of the air.

At our farm, we mimic this process by deliberately moving our birds daily. In this way, we care for our birds, as well as the grasses, and soil too. 

Over time, as our chickens graze the pasture, the carbon cycle repeats over and over again. The cool part is how you notice as things start to change. Most noticeably, you get to witness the grass grow back stronger and greener than before thanks to the input of carbon and other nutrients. 

Less visible but no less important is the strengthening of the grass's roots. As the grass above ground is eaten and manure is left behind, the roots spread deeper into the earth as they are signaled to grow thanks to fertilization.

As the grazing process repeats over time, the roots grow deeper into the earth and more carbon is stored underground.

Compare this with annual plants that aren't grazed over by animals and are replanted every season. The difference in root structure is striking and a clear demonstration of the carbon storing power of holistically managed livestock on perennial grasses.

Roots growing under perennial grasses

Image courtesy Regenerateland.com

This process of carbon storage underground is known as carbon sequestration, and it's a huge reason why traditional farming practices like pasture raised poultry are powerful tools in the fight against climate change. 

More carbon stored in the soil means less carbon in the atmosphere. And keeping the carbon cycle balanced in this way means a healthier planet for us all.

Our Responsibility as Farmers and Consumers - Act in Accordance with Nature

There are many reasons to raise chickens on grass. When we offer these reasons though, we sometimes only address the micro-perspective of animal welfare.

Of course it's more humane for chickens to live outside, and we would never diminish our birds' day-to-day wellbeing as one of our top priorities.

But it is worthwhile to think about the bigger picture too.

If we fail to appreciate natural processes like the carbon cycle for long enough and on a big enough scale then we risk creating a planetary imbalance that could have life-threatening consequences.

But if we act in accordance with nature by simply allowing plants and animals to live together as they should - feed, fertilize, repeat - then we have a much better chance at a healthier future. 

We must never forget how everything is connected.