Silvopasture for Poultry Production with Outdoor Access: Impact on animal welfare, economic, and environmental parameters

Project Overview

LS20-332
Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2020: $279,078.00
Projected End Date: 03/31/2023
Grant Recipient: Virginia Tech
Region: Southern
State: Virginia
Principal Investigator:
Dr. Leonie Jacobs
Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech)
Co-Investigators:
John Fike
school of Plant and Environmental Sciences, Va Tech
Dr. John Munsell
Virginia Tech - Department of Forest Resources and Environmental
Gabriel Pent
Dept. of Crop and Soil Environmental Science, Virginia Tech

This Research and Education Grant project was awarded a 2021 James Harrison Hill, Sr. Young Scholar Enhancement Grant award in the amount of $3,999. The award provides high school and undergraduate college students the opportunity to conduct sustainable agriculture research, as part of an existing Research and Education Grant project.

Information Products

Commodities

  • Animals: poultry

Practices

  • Animal Production: animal protection and health, grazing management
  • Crop Production: silvopasture
  • Production Systems: agroecosystems

    Proposal abstract:

    A silvopasture system involves intentionally integrating trees, shrubs and livestock on the same land. To date, these systems have largely been designed for ruminant livestock, such as cattle. However, novel silvopastures are being developed for poultry because these systems have potential to provide high quality habitat and feed sources that may improve bird health and welfare. The purpose of this project is to develop and assess sustainable poultry-based silvopastures. The research team combines expertise in broiler welfare (PI) and silvopasture production (co-PIs), plus large and small-scale poultry farmers as collaborators. Applying a systems-approach, we will assess animal welfare, economic, and environmental outcomes when integrating poultry production with novel silvopastures.

    To meet certification requirements, organic chicken producers have to provide outdoor access. These ranges are grass pastures, yet chickens prefer overhead cover and shelter in their outdoor range. This habitat preference may be realized through the implementation of silvopastures. Using a novel silvopasture system could increase land-productivity through additional income from vegetation and reduced feed costs. Chickens may benefit from natural cover and increased range use, which is often limited. In turn it can lead to improved leg and feet health, diet diversity, and improved meat quality. Silvopastures would also improve animal comfort as the vegetation moderates understory microclimate. Environmental benefits could include improved soil quality, air quality, and biodiversity, which in turn can improve societal acceptance of poultry production. Although silvopasture systems offer many potential benefits, they have received little study in a poultry context, and even less extension and outreach effort. The project will contribute knowledge for family farm poultry systems, both on a large and small-scale, to provide information on how to improve profitability and stability. This project will quantify animal welfare, economic and environmental benefits of poultry silvopastures and promote their adoption by fulfilling three objectives:

    1. Experimental trial: Compare broiler chicken production with access to existing silvopastures to broiler production with access to grass pasture, at the VT Shenandoah Valley Agriculture Research and Extension Center (AREC), focusing on:
      • Animal welfare: behavior, fear, leg and feet health
      • Economics: animal yield and theoretical land yield
      • Environment: biodiversity and soil parameters
    2. Field trial:
      • (A) Compare broiler chicken production with access to a newly planted silvopasture on a large-scale USDA organic commercial farm to grass pasture access on the same farm
      • (B) Compare broiler chicken production with access to established silvopastures on two small-scale commercial farms to grass pasture access on the same farms, focusing on:
        1. Animal welfare: behavior, fear, leg and feet health
        2. Economics: animal yield and theoretical land yield
        3. Environment: biodiversity and soil parameters
    1. Increase adoption of poultry-based silvopasture practices by:
      • (A) Surveying silvopasture- and traditional-system poultry producers about their experiences, concerns and opportunities for applying these practices
      • (B) Creating and disseminating case studies from abovementioned and other established silvopasture producers through extension
      • (C) Showcasing poultry silvopastures through research center and on-farm field days and web-based delivery tools
      • (D) Disseminating technical and budget information to producer and agency communities.

    Project objectives from proposal:

    This proposal is directed to poultry-centered silvopasture production systems. With this project, we aim to move existing organic poultry production systems toward more sustainable agriculture, in which animal welfare, economics, and the environment are balanced, and we want to strengthen awareness of existing silvopasture-based poultry production systems by collecting case studies that provide success stories and resources on how to overcome challenges. We will assess animal welfare, economic, and environmental parameters of combining silvopasture with poultry production by fulfilling three objectives:

    Year 1:

    1. Experimental trial: Compare broiler chicken production with access to existing silvopastures to broiler production with access to grass pasture, at the VT Shenandoah Valley AREC, focusing on:
      • Animal welfare: behavior, fear, leg and feet health
      • Economics: animal yield and theoretical land yield
      • Environment: biodiversity and soil parameters

    Year 1-3:

    1. Field trial:
      • (A) Compare broiler chicken production with access to a newly planted silvopasture on a large-scale commercial USDA Organic farm to grass pasture access on the same farm
      • (B) Compare broiler chicken production with access to established silvopastures on two small-scale commercial farms to grass pasture access on the same farms, focusing on:
        • Animal welfare: behavior, fear, leg and feet health
        • Economics: animal yield and theoretical land yield
        • Environment: biodiversity and soil parameters
    1. Increase adoption of poultry-based silvopasture practices by:
      • (A) Surveying silvopasture- and traditional-system poultry producers about their experiences, concerns and opportunities for applying these practices
      • (B) Creating and disseminating case studies from above-mentioned and other established silvopasture producers through extension
      • (C) Showcasing poultry silvopastures through research center and on-farm field days and web-based delivery tools
      • (D) Disseminating technical and budget information to producer and agency communities.

     

    For objective 1 and 2, the same measures will be collected at four different sites: (1) the Virginia Tech Shenandoah Valley AREC, (2) a USDA Organic large-scale farm where we will plant a new silvopasture, (3 and 4) two small-scale broiler farms with established silvopastures. At all sites, we aim to compare measures in flocks with and without access to silvopastures (meaning grass range versus silvopasture range). Objective 3 is aimed at educating industry stakeholders and promoting the system’s benefits.

    Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.