Improving soil quality with free-range poultry: an innovative solution for organic crop farmers and the environment
Increasingly, farmers are interested in adding an animal component to crop farms, but there a few scientific studies that document what effect this has on farm sustainability, particularly for poultry. Poultry are a viable choice for integrated livestock-crop farming due to a more supportive regulatory system than for ruminants. I am a Ph.D. candidate at UC Santa Cruz studying the potential of poultry-crop farming to enhance soil quality in a profitable manner. To maximize the usefulness of the research, I have developed the themes in collaboration with farmers.
Specifically, the research entails a 12-month soil study to investigate whether pastured poultry can replace or reduce the need for compost and cover crops in regards to soil nutrient levels, soil organic matter, and soil compaction. I am also analyzing soils for foodborne pathogens such as E. coli O157:H7, Campylobacter, and Salmonella to ensure that this practice does not cause food safety problems. In the greenhouse, I am growing crops in soil from chicken pasture and comparing growth to crops grown in regular crop soil.
Farmer interviews are an integral part of the research design, and I am interviewing them about three major areas. Firstly, I am gathering economic data to assess how much farmers spend annually in such areas as compost, cover crop seed, pasture seed, and poultry feed. I will use these data to determine if integrating poultry into a crop farm is more affordable than purchasing soil amendments. Secondly, I am seeking their views on regulations related to inspection, butchering, and organic certification; consumer concern about animal pathogens; and market viability. Thirdly, I am asking those farmers who already have integrated poultry-crop systems if they have found success. By documenting the challenges they have faced and how they overcame these barriers, I hope to share their stories with other farmers who would like to try integration but need more information.
If you are allowing your chickens to free range or using a chicken tractor in your crops or orchard and are interested in being interviewed contact: