Broiler chickens that can scratch in the willow coppice next to the poultry shed are tastier and juicier than the chickens that remain in the shed. That is what a team of Flemish and Wageningen researchers concluded.
<Chickens in willow coppice; photo: Wim Kopinga>
The researchers compared three groups of 200 broiler chickens in the ten weeks before slaughter. The first group of broilers were raised indoors, a second group had free-range access to grassland with artificial shelter and the third group of broilers had free-range access to short-rotation coppice with willow filled with vegetation. The research was carried out by Lisanne Stadig, a graduate of Wageningen who now works for the Research Institute for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food Research (ILVO) in Flanders. Co-author Bas Rodenburg of the Behavioural Ecology Group in Wageningen was involved in the research of the chicken behaviour, while Belgian colleagues determined the quality of the meat and had the taste of the chicken meat assessed by a taste panel.
More muscle tissue
The researchers established that the meat quality of the free-range chickens was clearly better. The meat of the free-range chickens had a higher pH than the ones that stayed indoors. This acidity influences the moisture content of the chicken. The meat of the shed chickens showed more drip loss than that of the free-range chickens. Besides, the free-range chicken also had more muscles tissue and were lighter than their shed counterparts. Additionally, the free-range chickens had yellower meat and a higher amount of polyunsaturated fatty acids. These unsaturated fats are healthier for humans than saturated fats.
Rich in herbs
The taste panel was asked to score the three kinds of – unspiced – chicken meat. The panel found the free-range meat to be more tender, juicier and less fibrous. The free-range chickens from the willow coppice consistently scored best, while the indoor chickens scored worst. The grassland chickens scored well too, but had slightly lower marks on taste and healthiness than the coppice chickens. Rodenburg thinks that the chickens in the willow coppice, which is rich in a variety of herbs, eat more greens than the chickens on the grassland next to the mobile chicken shed, which translates into tastier meat.
The research included two rounds, with 200 broilers per system, meaning a total of 1200 chickens. Stadig used slow-growing chickens that are often used by organic poultry farmers in Belgium and France. In a follow-up study, she follows the three farming systems individually to be able to make accurate connections between the use of free-range, the behaviour and the health of the chickens and the taste and quality of the chicken meat.
The Flemish government funded the research. They want to test new combinations of animal and plant production. Willow coppices near chicken sheds are seen as a promising combination. When the chickens are given the choice, they choose the willow coppice because it offers more shelter and protection from birds of prey. Additionally, the poultry farmer has the possibility to gather willows for the generation of energy, with chicken manure helping the willows grow faster. There are already some poultry farmers experimenting with willow coppices and orchards near their chicken sheds, says Rodenburg.