Organic Poultry Production in the US: Feed Issues

Organic Poultry Production in the United States was published by ATTRA in 2008. It discusses organic husbandry including living conditions, health, genetics and origin, feed and processing as specified under the livestock requirements of the US Department of Agriculture National Organic Program (NOP). This article covers issues regarding feeding, including a comparison of NOP standards with those in other countries.
calendar icon 17 February 2009
clock icon 6 minute read

Feed rations must provide the levels of nutrients (protein, energy, minerals and vitamins) appropriate to the type of bird, breed and age or stage of development. Typically, organic corn is used for energy, while organic soybeans provide protein.

Roasted, extruded or expelled soybeans are used because feeds that have been defatted with chemical solvents are not permitted. In cold areas, wheat and peas are often used for energy and protein, respectively. No animal drugs or antibiotics are allowed in organic feed. Nor can feed from genetically modified crops be used. Although chickens are omnivores in nature, animal slaughter by-products are not permitted in feed in organic production.

The feed must be organic, including pasture and forage. Therefore, any pasture used for organic poultry should be free of synthetic chemicals for three years before it can be used. Organic seed must be used when seeding pastures and weeds should be managed with cultural practices rather than synthetic chemicals. If organic hay is harvested for poultry, it should be stored separately from conventional hay. If grains are sprouted for poultry or roughage provided during temporary confinement, it must be organic. Organic feeds are very expensive compared to conventional.

According to the NOP Web site, feed may also contain natural, non-agricultural feed additives and supplements or approved synthetic substances that are allowed by the National List, which basically allows trace minerals and vitamins, as well as some inerts and excipients. Feed additives and supplements must comply with the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act.

To further clarify, feed additives such as vitamins and minerals are used in micro amounts to fulfill a specific nutritional need. However, synthetic amino acids are not permitted in organic production, although synthetic methionine is permitted for a limited time for poultry (see below). Feed supplements, such as fishmeal, enzymes and oyster shell, are permitted in larger amounts to improve the nutrient balance. The fishmeal does not have to be organic because it is a natural substance used as a feed supplement. However, prohibited substances such as ethoxyquin cannot be added to preserve fishmeal. As a reminder, feed additives and supplements cannot be from genetically modified organisms.

If poultry feed is raised on-farm, crop production must comply with the organic production standards for crops. This information is in sections 205-202 to 205.206 of the NOP Final Rule. Handled feed must comply with organic handling requirements or the feed must be from a certified organic feed mill. This is outlined in sections 205.270 to 205.272 of the NOP. For more information on organic feed processing, see NCAT's Organic Livestock Workbook.

Water should be from a clean source and may need to be tested for faecal coliform bacteria and nitrates. Water chlorination must not be above accepted levels of 4 ppm in the United States.

Synthetic Methionine

Methionine is the only synthetic amino acid permitted in organic livestock production and only for poultry on a temporary basis. Synthetic methionine is added to virtually all commercial poultry diets; however, it will be banned after October 2010 under the NOP. Although some feedstuffs are naturally high in methionine, such as fishmeal and corn gluten meal, there is a lack in organic form. There is no organic corn gluten meal and only limited fishmeal without prohibited preservatives. In addition, some companies market their poultry products as 'veg-fed' and therefore do not use fishmeal and other animal products.

Supplying sufficient methionine to birds with plant proteins such as soybeans or sunflower meal results in diets that are excessive in overall protein that is hard on birds (causing heat stress, excreting excessive nitrogen and more) and the environment (excess nitrogen and ammonia emissions). Innovative protein sources such as algae, earthworm or insect meal are of interest. Some literature suggests the use of alternative genetics that are lower-yielding; however, research at the University of Arkansas (Fanatico et al., 2006; Fanatico et al., 2007) has not shown slow-growing meat birds to have lower methionine requirements. The report Possibilities and Limitations of Protein Supply in Organic Poultry and Pig Production provides a comprehensive European perspective as the European Union is also dealing with the same problem.

Table 1. Comparison of highlights of poultry requirements regarding feed issues of selected organic programmes
USDA NOP European Union Soil Association (UK) Canada National Bio-Gro (New Zealand) IFOAM 2002
Feeding Animals should be fed organic feed
Per cent organic feed 100% feed required 15% of feed may come from non-organic sources (by 2012, 100% organic feed will be required) Organic feed required Organic feed required except for fishmeal; natural vitamins and minerals should be used if possible Some non-organic feed allowed: 15% (dry matter basis)
Source After 2010, 50% of feed must come from farm where birds are raised Ideally, feed should come from the farm or region At least 50% of feed should come from the farm itself or region
Nutrient level At least 65% of finishing feed must be cereal Grains during finishing At least 65% of finishing feed must be cereal
Roughage Roughage required in daily ration Roughage required in daily ration; grit required
Synthetic amino acids Prohibited, temporary exception for methionine Prohibited Prohibited Prohibited


Fanatico, A.C., T. O'Connor-Dennie, C.M. Owens and J. L. Emmert. 2007. Performance of alternative meat chickens for organic markets: impact of genotype, methionine level, and methionine source. Poult. Sci. 86 (Supplement 1). Abstr.
Fanatico, A.C., P.B. Pillai, T. O’Connor-Dennie and J.L. Emmert. 2006. Methionine requirements of alternative slow-growing genotypes. Poult. Sci. 85 (Supplement 1). Abstr.

Further Reading

- You can view the full report by clicking here.

February 2009
© 2000 - 2024 - Global Ag Media. All Rights Reserved | No part of this site may be reproduced without permission.