By Kimberly Willis, Robert T. Ludlow

Some people choose to feed their chickens an organic diet, either because they believe it’s healthier for the chickens or because they want to produce organic eggs or meat (or both). An organic diet means that the foods the chickens eat come from natural ingredients that are grown without pesticides. Some people also define organic as foods that don’t come from genetically modified plants.

If you’re not growing your own organic grain, the easiest way to feed your chickens organically is to buy one of the commercial organic feeds sold, which may be pelleted mixtures or mixtures of whole or cracked grains. These commercial feeds are handy because the average person has a hard time finding organic grains grown nearby and then buying small enough amounts for a home flock.

Since one grain is never going to be nutritionally sufficient, you will need to be able to find several grain types and know how to mix them to get the right nutrients for your chickens. You’ll probably need an animal nutritionist familiar with organic feeds to help you formulate a good feed mix. If you live in a rural area that grows a lot of organic crops, you may have this option available at a grain elevator, or your local county Extension agent may be able to help you find an expert.

You’ll likely have the most difficulty finding an organic source for the protein part of the ration. Grains may contain the amount of protein needed, but that vegetable-based protein may not have all the essential amino acids chickens require. Consult with someone who knows the organic standards to see what amino acid supplements are considered organic. Most feeds considered to be organic can have natural vitamin and mineral supplements added, but you need to have a source for them.

Organic standards for eggs and meat state that birds producing organic eggs or meat need to have access to the outdoors. Pasturing or free-ranging chickens on pesticide-free land is generally required in organic egg and meat production. Pasture and free-range birds still need grain supplements to grow and produce well, though. These supplements need to be certified organic. You also can’t use any medications not approved in USDA organic rules, including medicated starter feed.

Current organic standards give a break to producers of less than $5,000 worth of eggs or meat a year. You can probably call your eggs or meat organic (or natural, another ambiguous term) if you free-range or pasture your birds, get as close to an organic grain supplement as possible, and avoid using medications. And if the meat or eggs are for home consumption, you have a lot more leeway: If you aren’t selling eggs or meat you can devise a ration and system of housing that suit your idea of organic and fit your budget and not worry about anyone else’s opinion.

In short, it’s possible to feed your birds organically and keep them productive and healthy, but it isn’t as easy as some people think. Using a commercially prepared organic feed is the easiest way for owners of small flocks to feed organically.