Posts Tagged: chickens
Historically, chickens were not a rare sight on farms, where they contributed to soil fertility as they freely pecked and scratched around vegetable gardens and crop land. Now, UC Cooperative Extension specialists have launched a research project to quantify the potential for chickens to be part of safe and sustainable commercial organic vegetable production.
“It's not a new idea. A lot of farmers are trying this kind of thing,” said UC Davis International Agriculture and Development graduate student Faye Duan, the project coordinator. “But there is currently little scientific information for using chickens on a bigger scale, especially in terms of food safety concerns.”
The California trial is part of a national effort to diversify organic vegetable farms with chickens. Last year, the USDA-funded study was launched by Iowa State University horticulture professor Ajay Nair. The project also includes UC Cooperative Extension specialists Maurice Pitesky and Jeff Mitchell, based at UC Davis, and University of Kentucky entomology professor David Gonthier.
In the trials, chickens are introduced as part of a rotation that includes cover crops and a variety of vegetable crops. In California, chickens were placed on research plots in April following a winter cover crop of vetch, peas, fava beans and oat grass.
“We don't let the chickens run around the field,” Duan said. “We keep them inside of chicken tractors to protect them from predators.”
Twenty-nine birds live in each 50-square-foot tractor, essentially a floorless chicken coop on wheels. The tractors, built by UC Davis students Mallory Phillips and Trevor Krivens, are wood frames covered with mesh and plywood. Each day, the tractors are moved to a different part of the plot, where the birds can graze on cover crop residue and deposit manure. Adjusting to the daily move took time, Duan said.
“The first day, the chickens were confused. We had to go slowly. It's a learning process for the chickens and us,” she said. “But now, the chickens are excited to move to a new spot where they have fresh food to graze on.”
After 24 days on pasture, the chickens will be removed, and become part of the project's meat study.
“We have broiler chickens that are raised for meat,” Duan said. “Some people believe chickens that graze and eat grass taste better and are more nutritious. It will be part of the study to look at the chicken's meat quality.”
Once the chickens have done their part on the research plots, vegetables are planted amid the leftover cover crop residue and chicken manure. This summer, the experiment in California will grow processing tomatoes. Subsequently, melons, eggplant, spinach and broccoli will be part of the vegetable rotation in California or the other states involved in the project. Other replications of the trial will have the chickens immediately follow the vegetable harvest so they can graze on the crop leftovers before the cover crop is planted. Comparing the soil health, fertilizer needs, chicken quality and other factors will help the scientists optimize the rotation.
“Vegetable yield will be an important indicator of success,” Duan said.
Soil samples will be tested to determine the presence or absence of Salmonella bacteria after the chickens have been removed, said Pitesky, a poultry specialist and a project lead. Salmonella is a bacterium that can be part of poultry's microbiome. If the bacteria contaminates human food, it can cause illness.
“Since Salmonella lives in the chicken gastrointestinal system, when it gets into the soil, it will eventually be out-competed by bacteria more adapted to soil than the gut of a chicken,” Pitesky said. “There are many different types of Salmonella, and only a select few found in birds are the ones that are harmful to humans. Nevertheless, it is very important to test and use various practices to mitigate the presence of Salmonella on land that will be used for crop production following poultry.”
Early results of soil tests in Iowa and Kentucky detected Salmonella in the soil where chickens grazed, however, the bacteria disappeared very quickly.
As Californians began sheltering in place at home, they started growing their own food. In addition to gardening, people have begun adopting chickens for fresh eggs. For people who have little to no experience raising poultry, University of California Cooperative Extension has care and feeding tips to keep the birds healthy.
UCCE dairy advisor Randi Black and Karen Giovannini, UCCE agriculture ombudsman for Sonoma County, collaborated with UCCE poultry specialist Maurice Pitesky in the School of Veterinary Medicine to create Poultry 101. Their tips for new poultry owners are free at http://ucanr.edu/poultry101.
“Raising chicks and hens can be incredibly rewarding, particularly with delicious farm fresh eggs made right in your backyard,” said Black, who is also proud backyard poultry parent. “However, like other animals, they take a lot of care and management to ensure they stay healthy and productive. With new poultry parents on the rise, providing informative and accessible resources is critical to keeping our backyard flocks thriving.”
The guide covers the needs of chickens over their lifespan, from the time they hatch through retirement.
For warmth, baby chicks huddle under their mother hen. Without a hen, new owners must provide the appropriate ambient temperature based on the age of the chick. Poultry 101's “Chick temperature chart” recommends temperatures for chicks from hatch to 6 weeks old.
At around 18 weeks of age, one can eggs-pect pullets to lay their first egg.
"Backyard poultry can be educational and fun. Using UCCE tools like 'Poultry 101' are meant to provide science-based practical resources to raise healthy poultry,” Pitesky said.
Like flour, yeast, toilet paper and hand sanitizer, all over the country there's been a run on chicks, wrote Diana Williams in a article published by the Sacramento Bee. The author and her family adopted four chicks, and as they grew, so did her thirst for information on raising chickens at home.
"Imagine my delight in stumbling across a backyard chicken census online," Williams wrote.
Pitesky said there are about 100,000 backyard flocks in California. Sacramento probably has about 11 percent of them, making it the third-highest backyard chicken region in the state, behind Los Angeles and San Francisco.
Raising backyard chickens seems to be another somewhat senseless hoarding practice taking place during the COVID-19 crisis. Williams admitted that, "this isn't exactly logical if you consider it's about half a year until chicks lay eggs." She speculated that a search for meaning, purpose and connectedness during COVID-19 uncertainty is another driver of chicken adoption, along with suddenly having more time at home.
"So the prospect of being able to have new life inside our house – life that's warm, fuzzy and unfolding in a new way every day – that seemed more than inviting. It felt essential," Williams wrote.
Industry producers are concerned about the trend.
“We don't like all these people getting into backyard birds,” said Bill Mattos, president of the California Poultry Federation. “People start out trying to grow their own eggs and find out it's not so much fun. Instead of trying to get rid of them properly, people turn them loose and they develop a disease. That's what scares the commercial industry.”
Commercial and backyard poultry owners are asked to be attentive to their animals' health to help prevent the spread of the lethal and contagious virulent Newcastle disease now raging in Southern California, reported Bob Rodriguez in the Fresno Bee.
Symptoms of the disease include sneezing, coughing, green watery diarrhea, neck twisting, paralysis, decreased egg production and swelling around the eyes and neck, according to Maurice Pitesky, UC Cooperative Extension poultry specialist.
He said the popularity of backyard chickens is one of the challenges to controlling the disease. He estimates there are about 100,000 homes with poultry, with each home averaging five chickens.
"That is a lot more than in 2002, when we had the last outbreak (of virulent Newcastle disease)," Pitesky said. In 2002, the disease started in a backyard flock and eventually spread to 22 commercial poultry farms, killing 3.2 million birds.
"While people have the best of intentions, unfortunately a lack of biosecurity practices in people's backyards is one of the contributing factors of the disease spreading," Pitesky said.
Birds can become infected by coming into contact with other birds that are carrying the disease or by humans that carry the disease in their clothes or shoes. Pitesky said the disease also spreads when people purchase birds from a private party who may not be able to verify the bird is disease free.
He recommends buying from a hatchery or feed store that is affiliated with the National Poultry Improvement Plan, an organization that focuses on disease control.
“The goal is to be preventative,” Pitesky said.
If backyard chickens appear ill, owners should call the California Department of Food and Agriculture's State Bird Hotline at (866) 922-2473.
For more information on the disease, see the Virulent Newcastle Disease Outbreak Information and Resources page Pitesky has posted to his website, UC Cooperative Extension Poultry.
Californians who raise poultry outdoors are invited to get their eggs tested for contaminants.
To find out if harmful substances on the ground that are eaten by birds get passed along in the eggs they lay, Maurice Pitesky, UC Cooperative Extension poultry specialist at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, is providing free egg testing.
“We're trying to understand the connection between the environment that backyard poultry are raised in and the eggs they are producing,” Pitesky said.
Eggs from counties recently affected by wildfires will be tested for chemicals, building materials and heavy metals that may have been carried in the smoke and ash. Pitesky and Puschner are also looking for lead and PCBs in eggs from certain regions of the state.
The UC Cooperative Extension poultry specialist will share individual egg results with each poultry owner. At the end of the study, all of the results will be summarized and made available to the general public.
Pitesky describes the project in a video produced by CropMobster for UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine and UC Agriculture and Natural Resources. Watch the video at https://youtu.be/3ZlytlUIS3I.
For more information about the study and how to package and ship eggs, visit http://ucanr.edu/eggtest.
Residents in Sonoma County may drop off eggs at the UC Cooperative Extension office at 133 Aviation Blvd Suite 109 in Santa Rosa. The UCCE office in Sonoma County is open Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to noon and 1 p.m. to 4 p.m.