Integration of hens into a crop and pasture rotation system in Australia - production and agronomic aspects
Over a three year period, sheep were compared with hens to determine the effect of grazing on herbage availability, weed control and soil fertility in the crop-pasture rotation.
The free-range system used in the study allowed hens to move freely around the paddocks and forage on crop stubble or medic pasture. Hens foraged extensively in the wheat stubble with egg production averaging 90 percent (28 to 36 weeks-of-age), but overall production of free-range hens was lower than the Hyline cage standard.
Paddocks foraged by hens had more herbage and stubble remaining after grazing compared to paddocks grazed by sheep. Hens and sheep had a similar ability to control broad leaf weeds, but sheep preferred wire weed.
Soil nitrate nitrogen increased after grazing by hens and sheep.
Free-range hen farming gives the opportunity to develop integrated farming systems, where there is minimal chemical input. Farm products can be produced utilising the animal waste as fertiliser and the animals can be used to control weeds and pests without the use of insecticides and weedicides. Under natural conditions, a bird's diet comprises seeds, fruits, herbage and invertebrates and could partly achieve a reduction in problem insects and weed seeds.
Therefore, utilising hens in these areas on a small scale could gradually rectify the soil condition and eliminate weeds and pests, which have caused the overuse of chemicals.
In addition, consumers are also beginning to demand products from free-range animal production systems. Furthermore, for the best welfare outcome, hens should be able to express normal behaviours which is possible in free-range systems.
This paper examines the integration of hens (housed in eco shelters) into a pasture and crop rotation system to establish if free-range operations associated with organic grain production could be used on a niche scale in the wheat belt of Australia.
Comparison was made with sheep, which are traditionally used in crop and pasture farming systems.
Integrating hens into a traditional crop and pasture system was beneficial for this system. Hens obtained feed resources from the paddocks and production performance of hens approached industry standards.
The disappointing aspect was the fox attacks on hens, however, the shelters constructed were ideal for hens.
Hens were able to utilise the forage sources in the paddocks and graze weeds. The stocking density used in the trial was very low. Use of a large number of hens on pasture heavily infested with weeds offers an alternative approach to controlling weeds and avoiding the use of chemicals. The use of strip grazing to clean up weeds and moving the animals frequently to new areas is a strategy which could be employed particularly on farms where organic grain is being produced.
The use of animals in a cropping pasture system has potential and the system established attracted considerable interest. Most people were pleased to see the animals utilising the free-range facility and their perception was that it was a good system of production albeit with some of the problems that resulted many years ago in the commercial industry moving to intensive systems of production.
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Article made possible through the contribution of the Australian Poultry Science Symposium (APSS) 2006.