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 inhumane and unnatural.
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 is so critical to life on earth as it 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 farms like ours, we say we're raising chickens. But we're just as concerned with the health of our soils and grasses as we are with 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 everything suffers.
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 that carbon from the air and convert it into plant material, effectively storing the carbon in their leaves, roots, and stems.
When the birds finally do devour those plants, the carbon is absorbed back 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 graciously deposited by the birds and seep into soil.
In nature, animals don't stay in place for long after a bathroom break. They move on to fresh forage, and the soil gets time to absorb the nutrients left behind.
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 it 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 underground. As the grass above ground is eaten, the roots spread deeper into the earth. These roots grow more and more as the process continues, and with each successive grazing/manure input they store more and more carbon and the roots grow ever deeper. Compare this with annual plants that aren't grazed over by animals, and the difference is striking:
Image courtesy Regenerateland.com
This is known as carbon sequestration, and it's a huge reason why traditional farming practices like pasture raised poultry are powerful tools to ward off the problems associated with climate change.
You see, 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 all of us. Balance is a principle that nature appreciates as much as we do.
If you don't believe us, think about what would happen if we lived in a bubble with just a few plants. As soon as those plants were gone we'd be in a heap of trouble as carbon in the air had nowhere to go. We'd be goners in no time. Too much carbon in earth's atmosphere could eventually be calamitous as well.
Our Responsibility as Farmers and Consumers - Act in Accordance with Nature
As we said in the beginning, there are tons of reasons to raise chickens on grass. When answering such questions, we often tend to think of things from our own perspective, or from the perspectives of things we think we can understand, like other animals.
Of course it's more humane for chickens to live outside. We wouldn't want to be trapped inside our whole lives either, and we would never diminish that being a core principle of why we farm the way we do.
But what we fail to appreciate sometimes is the larger perspective of life that we're all a part of. Complex processes like the carbon cycle give us life, and they can also take it away.
It's our responsibility to act in accordance with nature so as not to throw these systems out of whack. To do so would mean we risk damaging more than ourselves. Because as we know, everything is connected.