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.
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.
Author: Patricia Bailey