Integrating Free Range Poultry with Ruminant and Agroforestry Production in a Systems Approach

2010 Annual Report for LS10-226

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2010: $210,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2013
Region: Southern
State: Arkansas
Principal Investigator:
Dr. Anne Fanatico
Appalachian State University

Integrating Free Range Poultry with Ruminant and Agroforestry Production in a Systems Approach


Interest is growing in natural livestock production and products, including poultry with outdoor access. Free-range poultry production is a land-based production system where using an extensive pasture can provide many benefits to the birds. However, poultry cannot manage a pasture sward alone, and it is difficult to economically justify the cost of significant land area for poultry alone. Integrating poultry with ruminants on pasture can maintain the forage in a nutritious, vegetative state for the birds and provide additional benefits for both enterprises, while reducing economic risks. Poultry grazing will potentially reduce parasites that impact ruminants; gastrointestinal parasites are a particular problem in sheep and goats and natural controls are needed. The birds could improve the pasture for ruminants by providing nutrients through manure and their scratching action that aerates the soil. Raising birds on high-quality pasture can reduce poultry feed costs. Protein is the most expensive nutrient to provide, but high-protein forages, such as chicory, can be used to help meet the birds’ protein needs. Some forages, such as sericea lespedeza, have been shown to have anti-parasital activities in sheep and should be tested on poultry. Trees or wooded areas are often associated with pastures and can offer cover, shade, and, in the case of leguminous trees, high-protein fodder. Birds may forage more under tree cover than without. There is little literature on these topics and scientific research is critically needed to investigate an integrated system of raising poultry on ruminant pasture with agroforestry practices to reduce risks and increase income for small- and mid-size farms. The USDA Agriculture Research Service Poultry Production and Product Safety Research Unit and Dale Bumpers Small Farms Research Center in Arkansas will lead a research and education team, which includes Appalachian State University, the National Center for Appropriate Technology, Louisiana State University, and farmer cooperators. The team will determine the impact of raising poultry with ruminants on animal and bird performance, livestock parasites, benefits to pasture, and economics. Data collected will include animal and bird weight gain, nematode larvae on pasture, ruminant fecal egg counts, forage quality, pasture fertility, and costs associated with production. The impact of high-protein forage (chicory/cowpea) and forage high in condensed tannins (sericea lespedeza) will also be determined on poultry performance, parasite control, feed saving, and cost of production. In addition, the impact of grazing poultry utilizing high-protein tree fodder and under shade/shelter/roosts will be evaluated. Meat and egg product quality will be evaluated for nutrients and food safety. Results of the experiments and best management practices will be disseminated to the agricultural community via web-based publications, webinars, mailings, conferences, and training.

Objectives/Performance Targets

1. Determine impact of integrating poultry with ruminant grazing on animal and poultry performance

2. Determine impact of grazing poultry on high-protein forage and forage with condensed tannins on performance and parasite control

3. Determine impact of grazing poultry under shelter/shade/roosts and feeding tree fodder for agroforestry systems

4. Determine the nutrient content of poultry products due to integrating poultry with livestock production and agroforestry

5. Conduct on-farm verification trials to determine the impact of practices developed


For project work and coordination, our team set up an electronic workspace where we can share text, files, photos, etc. The workspace includes a web conference tool with audio and video capability, as well as a console to share powerpoints, a whiteboard for design, desktop sharing, etc. Project participants use web cameras and headsets with integrated microphones for good audio quality. We have organized our objectives and tasks on the website and held our first video conference in 2010. We have also developed a chart to assist us with project evaluation. The workspace is under ASULearn and requires a guest account with Appalachian State University to access.

Objective 1 Accomplishments:

At the Dale Bumpers Small Farm Research Center in Booneville, Arkansas, we set up a trial to determine the impact of grazing lambs with pastured poultry on meat chicken performance and parasite infection level of lambs. Small farmers often raise pastured poultry in livestock pastures due to benefits to the livestock such as parasite control. There may also be benefits to the poultry such as higher quality forage due to fertility from livestock manure; however, food safety issues may increase.

Chicks were brooded and then placed on pasture at 2 weeks during summer months. Naked Neck chickens, a slow-growing commercial hybrid that grows to 4.5 lb liveweight in 10 weeks, were raised. Birds (10 per pen) were housed in 3 x 8 ft “pastured poultry pens”. The pen was a small hut (3 x 3 ft) with a litter-covered floor with an attached run. The run was floorless so birds could access pasture. The pens were moved daily to fresh pasture. Pens have bird doorways or “popholes” to allow them out of the pens daily into a larger area enclosed by an electrified net fence. Feed was provided in the hut area, while water and grit were provided in the run. Only natural light was used. The birds were randomly assigned to one of two treatments: 1) pastured poultry with lambs (Lamb) and 2) pastured poultry with no lambs (No Lamb). Pastured poultry pens in Lamb Treatment were placed in a one-acre paddock that was subdivided into 7 sub-paddocks. Lambs were moved daily to the next sub-paddock and after 7 days, returned to the beginning spot. Pastured poultry pens followed the lamb rotations by one day. This pasture was tall fescue (endophyte-infected), Bermuda, vetch (gone by July), soybean, chicory. Pastured poultry pens in No Lamb Treatment were placed in a neighboring pasture (tall fescue and lespedeza), where there are no lambs. There were four replications of these treatments.

Variables to be analyzed included performance (weight gain, feed intake, feed efficiency, mortality, microbial status, temperature in hut and in the run). Unfortunately, the trial had to be canceled before completions because the lambs were not parasitized enough for a meaningful evaluation. Birds were kept in pastured pens and preliminary data collected until 6 weeks of age when they were used for a poultry forage trial (described below in Objective 2). It was also problematic to allow the birds out of the pens into a larger fenced area because of the number of net fences required; 2-week old birds were too young to be allowed out of pens. The trial will be re-run, starting in spring 2011.

Farmers integrate poultry with grazing livestock in a number of ways. Many farmers believe that chickens can reduce cattle parasites by picking apart dung pats. In order to determine the impact of integrating poultry with goats and cattle, the Kerr Center for Sustainable Agriculture began brooding 50 Dominique and 50 Golden Laced Wyandotte chicks to raise in portable poultry houses “eggmobiles” in February. Eggmobiles are under construction and birds will be placed with the goats and cattle in April/May of 2011. The National Center for Appropriate Technology has developed plans for using solar panels and batteries for providing 4 hours of supplemental light in the field, which can help maintain egg production during winter months when the photoperiod decreases.

Objective 2 Accomplishments:
We conducted a trial to investigate various forages for pastured poultry. Free-range poultry producers allow birds to have access to the outdoors, usually forage or pasture. Forage for poultry should be low in fiber since birds cannot ferment large quantities of fiber like ruminants and cecal fermentors. Improving the quality of forage can increase the nutrients available to the birds. For example, chicory is high in protein. Some forages, such as sericea lespedeza, may have anthelmintic qualities. However, food safety issues may increase.

The 6-week-old meat birds from the canceled trial described in Objective 1 were used (see Objective 1 above). The birds were randomly assigned to one of 4 forage treatments (6-7 birds per pen). The treatments were 1) Lespedeza, 2) Soybean, 3) Chicory, and 4) Mixed grass. Pastured poultry pens were placed in these forage areas and moved daily. There were 3 replications of these treatments.

Variables analyzed included performance (weight gain, feed intake, feed efficiency, mortality). Feed and birds were weighed when 6-week old birds are placed on treatments and at the end of the trial at 10 weeks of age. Cloacal swabs were taken from 9 birds per treatment (3 birds per replication) at 6 weeks and 10 weeks of age for Salmonella spp and Campylobacter jejuni. At the end of the trial, birds were donated to a local 4-H group to be auctioned for fund-raising. Data is currently under analysis.

Objective 3 Accomplishments:

At the USDA ARS Poultry Production and Product Safety Research Unit in Fayetteville, Arkansas, we conducted a study to determine whether providing enrichments that simulated agroforestry structures would increase the use of the range by organic meat chickens. We conducted this trial in the USDA Organic Poultry Research Facility. Poultry provided with outdoor area often stay close to the house. Slow-growing Delaware chickens, an American standard breed, were raised in floor pens (n = 17/pen) in a naturally ventilated house; a pophole in each pen allowed daily access to a grass-covered range (10 x 100 ft). Feed and water were provided indoors and 50 ft from the house. The birds were randomly assigned to one of two treatments: No cover (control) and Cover. There were 4 pens per treatment. In the Cover treatment there were roosts made of plastic pipe or screened shelters 25 ft and 75 ft from the house and overhead shade panels 50-70 ft from the house. Use of the outdoor area was determined by counting the number of birds in each quadrant of the range every 7 min three times daily (0900-0945 h, 1300-1345 h, and 1600-1645 h) when the birds were 7 and 10 wk of age. There was no difference in weight gain between treatments (P < 0.05). Behavorial data is currently under analysis, but initial analysis suggests that adding enrichments to the range encouraged birds to use the land more evenly. We have submitted an abstract on this research to the 30th Poultry Science Symposium on Alternative Systems for Poultry – Health, Welfare and Productivity which will take place at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, UK from September 7-9, 2011.

At the USDA Organic Poultry Research Facility, we initially planted two poultry yards with a native woody perennial, beautyberry (Callicarpa americana), in order to gather preliminary data contrasting the use of woody perennials to constructions that simulate agroforestry. Beautyberry provides not only shade and shelter to the birds but also a roosting space and as berries mature, mast and green leaf. We have since planted three more poultry yards. Additional research will be conducted using these yards.

We are also conducting research to examine alternative feeding methods for free-range poultry in contrast to feeding a single diet in phases (i.e. starter, grower, finisher). For example, choice feeding, using a high-protein feed with mineral and vitamin supplements provided separately from a grain feed, may allow birds raised in relatively open housing with largely uncontrolled environmental conditions to more precisely meet their nutritional requirements by self-selection compared to a fully-formulated diet. Choice feeding may also allow producers to use feed grains produced on their own farms in order to reduce transportation and milling. It may also be used in conjunction with forages to provide nutrients for poultry. We have submitted an abstract on choice feeding for organic meat chickens to the Poultry Science Association annual meeting to be held July 18-20, 2011 in St. Louis, MO.

Objective 4:
No action items to report in 2010.

Objective 5 Accomplishments:
After the agroforestry simulation trial described in Objective 3, the 12-week-old Delaware birds were transferred to our farmer cooperator Little Portion for testing in wooded areas. Delaware are a duo-purpose bird and Little Portion is using them as hardy layers.

Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes

We encountered some difficulties in starting research in Objective 1 (integrating poultry with ruminant grazing) reflecting problems that may occur when conducting systems research; it was not possible to control the lamb coccidia during the trial so it had to be cancelled. However, we have learned some methods to improve the trial design. We are making modifications to our electric net fencing and charger arrangement as we re-run the trial.

The research in Objective 2 (grazing poultry on high-protein forage) will help us determine the impact of different types of forage on poultry performance.

The research we conducted in Objective 3 (grazing poultry in agroforestry systems) examines the importance of cover and enrichments in encouraging birds to forage. Birds will use the outdoor area more evenly and may be able to obtain more nutrients from forage and mast. The National Organic Standards Board is currently making recommendations to the USDA National Organic Program to increase outdoor areas for organic poultry.

In our first year of work, we have advanced in almost all of our objectives. Our multidisciplinary partners and systems approach to researching the impacts of poultry/ruminant/agroforestry interactions will have lasting environmental, economic, and social benefits.

Publication list
  • Fanatico, A.C., V. B. Brewer, C. M. Owens, and A. M. Donoghue. 2011. Choice feeding of organic meat chickens. Poultry Science. Accepted.

    Fanatico, A.C., J.A. Mench, G.S. Archer, Y. Liang, V. B. Brewer, Owens, C.M., and A. M. Donoghue. 2011. Effect of Simulated Agroforestry Structures on Performance and Behavior of Organic Meat Chickens. World Poultry Science Association. Accepted.


Dr. Jim Miller
Louisiana State University
Department of Pathobiological Sciences
School of Veterinary Medicine
Baton Rouge, LA 70803
Office Phone: 2255789652
Dr. Anne Fanatico
Research Associate
USDA Agricultural Research Service
University of Arkansas Center of Excellence for Poultry Science
1260 W. Maple St.
Fayetteville, AR 72701
Office Phone: 4795752391
Dr. Joan Burke
Research Animal Scientist
USDA Agricultural Research Service
Dale Bumpers Small Farms Research Center
6883 South State Highway 23
Booneville, AR 72927
Office Phone: 4796753834
Margo Hale
Southeast Regional Director
National Center for Appropriate Technology
P.O. box 3657
Fayetteville, AR 72702
Office Phone: 4794429842
Dr. Annie Donoghue
Research Leader
USDA Agricultural Research Service
University of Arkansas Center of Excellence for Poultry Science
1260 W. Maple St.
Fayetteville, AR 72701
Office Phone: 4795752413
Clay Colbert
Farm Manager
Little Portion
350 County Road 248
Berryville, AR 72616
Office Phone: 4792537710
Will Lathrop
Sustainable Agriculture Specialist
Kerr Center for Sustainable Agriculture
P.O. Box 588
Poteau, OK 74953
Office Phone: 9186479123
Jennifer Edwards
Dancing Springs
18689 Lake Sequoyah WC 50
Fayetteville, AR 72701
Office Phone: 4795871731