Designing free-range environments: so chickens can go green!

Pierre RONDIA
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Designing free-range environments: so chickens can go green!

Poultry farming is a growing industry in Wallonia, especially with its booming organic and outdoor production. But how do you design a free-range environment that looks attractive?

An appropriately planned run (tree plantation and herbaceous cover) has many advantages. It supports the sustainability of the activity insofar as it meets the concerns of society (environment, animal welfare, image of the sector, ...).  Consequently, the CRA-W has invested in setting up poultry run facilities through the monitoring of a regional reference and experimental centre (CRE).  The aim of the CRE is to promote the development of runs with fruit trees, to be a place of experimentation in terms of the choice of meadow species to be planted, and to make technical information and the related results widely available.

The observations made in this context demonstrate the importance of sowing a diversified plant cover, combining grasses and leguminous plants as a minimum requirement (clover, alfalfa), to provide a continual herbaceous cover during the whole period that the chickens have access to the run. Adding chicory to the mixture is also beneficial. This plant is highly appetising, which one can see by the traces of pecking on the leaves, and its erect growth adds relief to the plot (a visual guide that helps to disperse the poultry).  The measurements collected show that the herbaceous cover is definitely eaten.  However, its contribution to the nutritional intake of poultry is still not widely understood and requires further investigation, especially the method by which grass intake by the chicken is measured. The poultry run, which includes diversified feed mixtures, also has good nutritional value for ruminants and can therefore be appreciated by them (either by mowing or rotational grazing).  The observations also highlighted the sensitivity of broiler chickens to their environment, particularly to climatic conditions (wind, cold, rain, sun, etc.). 
Finally, the benefits of an herbaceous cover will be optimised once the shrubs and trees in the area have grown sufficiently to create relief (guiding the poultry), as well as shading and refuge areas (protection against the sun and predators).

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