Main research question/goal
The theoretical benefits of free-range chicken husbandry are not currently being realised. Chickens with free range access often do not use this in an optimal way; only some of the birds go outdoors and if they do, they usually stay close to the henhouse. Full use of the available outdoor space would increase the space available per bird and the birds would have more opportunities to perform natural behaviours such as foraging and dust bathing. This would also benefit the environment, because the concentration of faeces close to the stable would decrease.Chickens probably stay indoors because of the sense of being unprotected against predators and aversive weather conditions while outside. Scientific literature indicates that shelter plays an important role in the use of the free range area. It remains unknown, however, which type of shelter is most suitable for use in the free range area. The aim of this project is to assess the effect of planting a short rotation coppice in the free range area; we examine the effects of the trees on the chickens and vice versa.Research approach
At ILVO's experimental farm, a plot has been planted with 50% short rotation coppice (willows) and 50% grass. Several rounds of four groups of slow-growing broilers are to be housed on this plot in mobile stables. All groups of chickens have access to the willows and the grassland. The birds' locations are monitored automatically, which makes it possible to see if they have a preference for either the willows or the grassland. Because data from individual birds are available, relations between free range use and personality, meat quality and welfare parameters are assessed. In addition, we study the effects of the chickens' presence on the growth and production of the willows as well as nutrient balances in the soil.Relevance/Valorisation
Scientific knowledge is lacking about how to best design a free range area; this study helps to fill that knowledge gap. Short rotation coppice would not only provide shelter for the chickens, but also means an extra income for the farmer, because the demand for biomass is increasing. Short rotation coppice farmers would also be able to house broilers in mobile stables on their land for extra income.
IWT - Instituut voor de aanmoediging door wetenschap en technologie in Vlaanderen