Pastured Poultry Farm to Foster Innovation for Small Chicken Farms

(This article was written by Patricia Bailey from the UC Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources, and was published on December 16, 2016.)

UC Agriculture and Natural Resources (UC ANR) provided seed money to launch a new Pastured Poultry Farm at UC Davis. The farm is home to 150 young chickens and a living laboratory where students and faculty researchers hope to develop innovative solutions benefiting pasture-based 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, UC ANR 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. In the center is a bright red student-built Eggmobile for night time housing. The ‘coop on wheels’ can be strategically moved around the land for consistent fertilization. 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.

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.

Chickens walking the ramp to the Eggmobile. (Photo: Don Preisler)

Chickens walking the ramp to the Eggmobile. (Photo: Don Preisler)

The new project is largely driven by students – drawn from the School of Veterinary Medicine, College of Engineering, and College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences – who designed and constructed the Eggmobile. The mobile barn includes 32 nest boxes, each capable of accommodating several chickens. As it is moved to different locations in the pasture, chicken droppings gradually fertilize the grass. The student and faculty research teams will be delving into issues involving diseases and chicken health, predation by wildlife, and occupational health for workers.

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. Eventually, the research team hopes to construct multiple Eggmobiles with different designs, and in time 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.

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.

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