Renewable alternative bedding for commercial broiler chicken production
This project has been off to a great start thus far. We are currently two weeks into the switchgrass trial and performed our first set of bird and litter measurements. Both experimental switchgrass beddings are currently being classified based on physical properties. That being said, there were some changes to the project’s design that resulted from opportunities, conversations with the cooperator, and a power analysis. The outcome of these changes results in a better statistical power and the project fits better with our cooperator’s goals, while still providing the best potential for sound scientific methods.
The willow trial is developing and after discussion with the cooperator, the arrangement of the trial has been slightly modified from the original proposal. Currently, we are looking to procure the willow by the last week of January for a trial starting the second week of February.
- Located and sourced switchgrass of two distinct particle sizes to our cooperator in Lititz at the end of November
- Began our first pen trial and have taken samples of the bedding (Dec. 6th)
- Currently classifying treatment beddings for all parameters outlined in this project’s objectives
- Have taken first set of bird and litter measurements (Dec. 18th, as weather and time did not permit on Dec. 16th) and ran bedding material for pH and moisture content.
- Noted differences in these measurements between treatments, but will need to evaluate for statistical significance.
- Located a source of willow for our second project and plan to have it delivered by the 1st of February
- Have identified which barn on the cooperator’s farm that we will be using for the willow study and are expected to start the trial February 7th
Looking at the schedule, both projects are projected to be completed in the timeline given.
An item that changed was the goal for the willow project. In working with members of the Penn State team knowledgeable in willow harvesting, it was discovered that there is only one willow cutting head that is used to harvest biomass willow in the Northeastern U.S.. To bring in willow processed by another cutting head from another region to meet our goal for testing two beddings of two different particle sizes would be costly, and there is no guarantee that the willow from two different regions would be the same in matters other than particle size. Therefore, instead of testing willow of two different particle sizes against one another, a standard willow particle size will be tested against our cooperator’s standard hardwood shaving. A farm-scale study of this type has not been performed to date and we believe that the data garnered from this project will be beneficial in determining if the product that we can provide in this region has the properties that poultry farmers look from their bedding material.
From August- October, contacts were identified and switchgrass was procured and delivered in late November to our cooperator. The switchgrass trial started December 6th, 2016. Bedding and 12 day litter and bird samples were taken and are in the process of being analyzed for the parameters outlined in the grant application. Because the birds have a grow-out period of 7 weeks instead of the proposed 5, this trial will end January 24th. This will also be the date the barn that we are using for the willow trial will be emptied and cleaned out in preparation for the next flock of birds. Because our cooperator has limited bedding storage on site, the willow for the study will need to be delivered in the period between January 24th and February 7th. A contact for willow has been identified and the proposed delivery of this product will be around February 1st.
The willow trial will start around February 7th and will finish March 28th. This is earlier than we have proposed in our timeline, so if there is a setback with the cooperator getting the next flock in, it will not impact our completion timeline.
Items left to complete include the preparation of an abstract for the Poultry Science Association annual meeting as well as a creation of a PSU extension flier that will be uploaded to the PSU extension page. In regard to presenting the research at Ag progress days, I have the necessary contacts to ensure that I have a space to put up a display about this research. The completion of these items will begin after the research work for both projects has been completed, as this information is necessary to accentuate my talking points.
Although the project progressed as expected, there were some modifications to the original proposal. After the award of my NE SARE graduate student grant, I was alerted that a power analysis had not been performed on my study design, which was based off of a design that had been used in pervious on farm projects. Once this was performed, it was realized that the current study design did not have enough power, meaning that if no difference was found between parameters of the two treatment beddings, we would have a low certainty that a difference did not exist. To rectify this problem, three cells were needed per treatment instead of two. The newest design can be seen in the attached file of the house diagrams.
At the same time, the producer happened to have two identical houses right next to each other that were to be cleaned out and repopulated with a new flock of chicks at the same time. Not wanting to miss this opportunity to further increase our replicates, we agreed to perform a two house trial, with each trial having each bedding in half of the house, with 3 cells of each bedding per house. All numbers and types of measurements within each cell remained the same.
Another item that came up while talking to the farm manager was that in the winter, he brooded birds in half of the house to 7 days, then let them enter into ¾ of the house until about 14 days, after which time he let them have full utilization of the house. The issue that we saw with this for the study’s sake was that when the birds moved it would lead to a different density of birds on the litter over the course of the study, making the replicate cells void. After working with the manager, he agreed that he would half-house brood only, letting the birds into the second half of the house at 10 days. With this new set up, to ensure that all cells had the same density of birds for the same number of days, we set up the 6 cells in the brood section, opting to move half of the birds from each cell to the second half of the house by hand to keep the density of birds in our replicate cells even over the course of the trial.
The approximate measurement dates for this project also needed to be altered because the birds reared in the barns that we are using are organic heavy weight birds, reared to 7 weeks instead of 5. To acquire meaningful data, the measurement dates were changed from weeks 1, 3, and 5 to 10 days (the period of bird movement), 5 weeks, and 7 weeks. By evaluating birds at weeks 5 and 7, we can make conclusions about the bedding’s impact on the birds at a 5 week commercially standard age as well as the heavy weight age. The results can be applied to organic growers that rear birds to either age, which is even more beneficial than the originally proposed study.
Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes
From the work that I’ve done thus far, I am surprised and happy with how willing individuals are to help with this study. There is an interest among switchgrass farmers to sell a good product to poultry farmers and for poultry farmers to use alternative bedding materials, especially if they perform as well as or better than whatever they are currently using. One of the holdbacks about this idea, besides the physical properties that I’m evaluating, is the price point. From talking with Flintrock Farm’s manager and the President of another PA-based poultry company, the broiler chicken farmers only get so much in an allowance from the integrator for bedding costs. If the cost of bedding exceeds this amount, it comes directly out of the farmer’s pocket, which is not something anyone really wants to do.
Because the farm that we are working with is organic, the bedding for the house needs to also be grown in an organic fashion. In talking to the members of the newly formed Association of Warm Season Grass Producers, there is interest in meeting that niche market as well as the poultry bedding market in general. This has sparked my interest in the economics of this bedding. Therefore, as an offshoot of this product, I will perform an informal cost analysis with both poultry farms and switchgrass producers to find out what price point bedding has to be sold for to be of interest to switch producers to supply the poultry market and for poultry farmers to purchase this product.
In talking with our cooperator and his employees, all are very happy with the switchgrass bedding, as it is like no other bedding they have used before. They, like me, are excited to see how it will perform over the course of this project.
Professor of Poultry Science
Penn State University
223 Henning Building
University Park, PA 16802
Office Phone: 814-865-3414
Associate Professor of Poultry Science
Penn State University
222 Henning Building
University Park, PA 16802
Office Phone: 814-863-8934
Associate Professor of Agricultural and Biological Engineering Machinery and Biomass Logistics
Penn State University
309 Forest Resources Lab
University Park, PA 16802
Office Phone: 814-863-6844
16 East Brubaker Road
Lititz, PA 17543
Office Phone: 717-627-4269