Experimental pasture poultry farm at UC Davis to provide timely research

Mitchell McCarthy, a UC Davis agricultural and biological systems engineering student, holds a young layer chicken on his arm in front of the portable coop dubbed “the Eggmobile” at UC Davis. McCarthy helped design and build the coop at the UC Davis Pastured Poultry Farm.
Mitchell McCarthy, a UC Davis agricultural and biological systems engineering student, holds a young layer chicken on his arm in front of the portable coop dubbed “the Eggmobile” at UC Davis. McCarthy helped design and build the coop at the UC Davis Pastured Poultry Farm. hamezcua@sacbee.com

When a flock of white-feathered chickens saunters out of a portable coop dubbed “the Eggmobile” at UC Davis, it’s like they are hopping into the future – from a not-so-distant past.

The flock of 150 Lohmann White chickens are part of an experiment in pasture poultry farming, one in which veterinary, engineering and plant sciences departments are employing their expertise. The goal: to test different methods of raising chickens on pastureland.

In today’s world of chickens housed in cages, it’s a throwback to the methods used by farmers before World War II. But this experiment looks forward, not back. Pastured eggs are growing in popularity with consumers, part of the larger farm-to-fork movement in which people pay more attention to how their food is raised.

The Eggmobile, and the 4 1/2-acre plot of pastureland on the UC Davis campus set aside for the chickens, seeks to address the needs of a changing poultry industry – and the explosion of backyard chicken farming.

In the early half of the 20th century, it was customary to see chickens on farms with full access to the outdoors. Thereafter, farmers and farming operations started raising poultry in large indoor enclosures. The reasons were physiological as much as economical: Keeping them indoors kept the birds dry, at a standard temperature, and away from predators. It also kept them away from a slew of avian flu diseases.

But keeping them indoors also brought downsides. Packing birds into buildings increased outbreaks of other diseases, and the drive for profit saw more and more birds packed into smaller spaces that offered poor air quality and artificial lighting. In the last 20 years the practices of indoor farming have been called into question, and more consumers are demanding pasture-fed chickens.

The Eggmobile is a central feature of the UC Davis poultry pasture. The bright-red and white structure, mounted on wheels, looks like a portable barn. Inside it contains waterers, and removable nest boxes and roosts.

It cost $5,000 to build, and can be wheeled around to different parts of the pasture. The birds sleep inside the structure and come outside to forage in the pasture during the day. Moving the flock around the pasture means different sections get fertilized by bird droppings.

UC Davis researchers say knowledge gleaned from raising the chickens will provide tools for poultry farmers, master gardeners and a growing army of backyard chicken farmers in the Sacramento region.

The effort is also meant to address a dearth of academic research on pasture poultry farming, said Maurice Pitesky, specialist in population, health and reproduction at UC Davis’ School of Veterinary Medicine.

“Resources to address food safety, welfare and environmental issues – these are the kinds of things that have not been usually available to poultry farmers,” said Pitesky.

Civil engineering students worked with veterinary students on the Eggmobile design. The interface between departments is a crucial part of the research, Pitesky said.

“Describing something like the welfare challenges of raising chickens to an engineering student? That is at the root of this partnership,” said Pitesky. “We’re just scratching the surface on the kind of innovations and efficiencies we’ll be able to come up with in the next several years.”

The initial part of the pasture poultry project began with graduate students visiting 11 local poultry pasture farms over the summer, said Naomi Dailey, poultry project manager and a Ph.D. candidate at UC Davis.

The five-year effort will look at how best to feed pastured chickens by monitoring their egg production, which is expected to total 110 eggs daily. Another focus will be testing methods to keep the birds free from disease and predators.

That kind of information is just what Dixon egg farmer Nigel Walker said he needs from UC Davis. Walker owns the 105-acre Eatwell Farm in Dixon, where he has raised chickens on pasture since 1996.

“There is nothing terribly difficult about what we do,” said Walker. “If you give a chicken good food, fresh air, clean water and some room to roam, they will produce fantastic eggs.”

What is tricky is finding efficiencies to make the business more profitable and deciding what feed to use, he said.

At UC Davis, the chickens feed on pasture planted with alfalfa, clover, rye and grass.

Unlike indoor factory chickens, pasture-fed birds must contend with the vagaries of weather. “At Dixon, one day can be 100 degrees and in a few weeks as low as 34 degrees,” said Walker.

In the summer, the chickens need protein to produce eggs, but in the winter the birds also need fats, oils and carbohydrates to stay warm and keep producing eggs, said Walker.

“I’m particularly interested in finding the right kind of feed for the right time of the year, and for the right age of the bird,” he said.

He said there has always been brisk demand for pasture poultry eggs, but it has risen in the last few years. Since 1996, he has increased his flock of egg-laying chickens from 400 to 1,600.

These pasture-raised eggs command a high price. Walker said almost all of his go to buyers in San Francisco. “My eggs are too expensive for the Sacramento (Natural Foods) Co-op.”

Edward Ortiz: 916-321-1071, @edwardortiz