UC Davis today unveiled its new Pastured Poultry Farm, home to 150 young laying chickens and a living laboratory where students and researchers hope to develop innovative solutions benefiting pasture-based poultry farms, integrative crop-and-poultry farms, and backyard flocks.
Pasture-based chicken production offers many benefits as well as some challenges in terms of food safety, animal health and welfare, and environmental impacts, said Maurice Pitesky, a Cooperative Extension poultry specialist with the School of Veterinary Medicine and co-leader of the poultry project.
The new 4.5-acre farm, located about one mile west of the central UC Davis campus, includes a seeded, irrigated pasture, where the chickens can forage, as well as a bright red, student-built Eggmobile for protection and overnight housing. The pasture uses a portable electronic fence to protect against predators and is surrounded by a 50-foot band of uncultivated land to serve as a wildlife buffer.
“This is a unique innovation, research and outreach resource for the Western United States,” Pitesky said. “The project includes faculty and students with expertise in veterinary medicine, husbandry, welfare, pasture management and engineering, which allows us to address issues related to predator control, welfare, food safety and food efficiency.”
Debbie Niemeier, professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, and her team have already developed a number of innovations for the project, including a tarp-pulley system, portable-shade and predator-mitigation structures, an automatic watering system, and modular roll-out nest boxes.
New solutions for changing times
“The poultry industry is going through significant changes in how poultry products are produced — including the manner in which the birds are housed,” Pitesky said, noting that one of the nontraditional methods gaining in popularity is pastured production.
One of the advantages of the pasture-based system is the opportunity for a farmer to integrate chicken production with a farm’s existing cropping system, with the chickens providing natural fertilizer for the crops.
“It’s also a way for crop farmers to move into poultry production without expanding their land or adding nitrogen fertilizer to their farming system,” Pitesky said.
Students driving demonstration project
Pitesky is quick to point out that the new project is largely driven by students, who designed and constructed the red and white Eggmobile — a mini chicken-barn on wheels. The mobile barn includes 32 nest boxes, each capable of accommodating several chickens. It can be moved to different locations in the pasture, gradually fertilizing the grass with chicken droppings as it goes.
Students also seeded the pasture, developed and installed a pasture irrigation system, and have been caring for the young chickens since they arrived in early October as day-old chicks.
The student and faculty research teams will be delving into issues involving diseases and chicken health, predation by wildlife, and occupational health for workers.
Participating students are drawn from the School of Veterinary Medicine, College of Engineering, and College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.
Eggs for the community
Eggs produced by the project’s flock will initially be donated to food shelters. The potential for eventual egg sales to the community is being explored.
“We really want this to be a local and regional demonstration project,” Pitesky said, noting that producers and community members are welcome to stop by and view the project and will be invited to future educational events at the site.
Eventually, the research team hopes to construct multiple Eggmobiles with different designs, in order to optimize cost, ergonomics and sustainability. And in time, the researchers would like to expand the project to include broiler chickens as well as cropping systems that integrate poultry, in order to fully maximize the potential of the land for food production.
Funding the project
The Pastured Poultry Project received $40,000 in startup funding from UC Agriculture and Natural Resources.
In addition, several stakeholder organizations have contributed a total of nearly $20,000 and donated feed, birds and equipment. A list of donors and other information about the UC Davis Pastured Poultry Farm can be found online.
The School of Veterinary Medicine has established an online site where individuals interesting in supporting the UC Davis Pastured Poultry Farm financially can make donations.