Friday, July 20, 2012

Grass and free-range chicken diets: Students lead research with organic garden chickens

Two Randolph students are leading a study to help determine the best practices for raising healthy chickens that produce high-quality eggs.

Laura Word ’13 and Michael Taylor ’13 are conducting this research with chickens in the Randolph College Organic Garden. They placed one group of chickens in an area without grass, and another in an area with grass. Then they started tracking the health and egg quality of hens from each group.
Getting chickens to sit in a bucket long enough to be weighed
isn't always easy, but it is an important part of the research
Laura Word ’13 and Michael Taylor ’13 are conducting.

Word, who wants to become a veterinarian, thought of the research idea because she was interested in seeing how a grassy habitat would affect chickens. “You would think that if they have grass, they would be much better; but being a scientist, I can’t just trust my gut.”

Word and Taylor each received a grant from the Randolph Innovative Student Experience (RISE) program, which provides grants to help students pay for research and other scholarly endeavors. Word also received a Virginia Foundation for Independent Colleges summer fellowship to fund the project.

After putting the chickens in different environments, they provided an identical corn and pellet ration to each group. They weighed the chickens, checked them for parasites and bacteria, and analyzed their eggs.

The researchers were surprised to find that the chickens among the grass gained weight more slowly than the other chickens. They produced fewer eggs, but the eggs had higher quality according to several measures.

Word plans to continue this research project in the fall to try answering other questions. For example, is the lower egg production caused by the age of the hens? Or could Einstein (the sometimes overprotective rooster who watches over the forage group) be causing them stress?

Adam Houlihan, a Randolph biology professor working on the research with the students, said this project gives context to the poultry industry’s free-range practices. “Free range, by definition, simply means that the birds have been given some period of time outdoors,” he said. “It doesn’t define the quality of the outdoor space, and it doesn’t define the period of time.” Some free range chickens are given an outdoor field of dirt or gravel, although some farmers are pushing for raising chickens with grass.

“This tiny little experiment with 28 birds has the potential to change some of the ways that the industry conducts business,” Houlihan said.