Student - September 10, 2009

Joint research on mobile chicken run

A Wageningen university student and a VHL student have done research together on the pros and cons of a mobile chicken run designed to get the hens scavenging for their own food.

Ilse and Ted with 'their' chickens at the mobile chicken run at Droevendaal
There were 380 chickens in the orchard of Droevendaal Organic Experimental and Training Farm this summer. They arrived at the end of May, at three weeks old. Every day, VHL student Ted Hilderink and Ilse Antonissen, MSc student at the university, looked after the chickens in their mobile run.
Ted is in the fourth year of the Applied Animal Science course. He wanted to test a mobile chicken run because he thought it could be useful on organic farms. It stimulates the chickens to scavenge for their food themselves. To test to what extent the chickens were capable of this, they were divided into two groups: one group was given unlimited food while the other was put on short rations. A mobile run would also prevent chicken droppings from piling up.
MSc student of Animal Sciences Ilse Antonissen liked the research project too. 'Practical, working with animals, in the fresh air', is how she sums it up.
During daytime, the chickens were free to roam the orchard, but at night they had to go in the run to be safe from predators. 'Our nightmare was that the chickens would stage a mass breakout, like in the film Chicken Run', said Ted. That only happened at the start, when they chicks were still small enough to get through the wire mesh. Steps were taken immediately. Ted and Ilse did find a chicken head near the run one day, though. A runaway chicken had been caught by a fox.
'When the chicks were about 30 days old there was a turning point in their reaction when they saw us: from fear to happiness', Ted says. 'It was always the same chickens that would sit on your shoulders or head. If you stroked them under the chin, they obviously enjoyed it.' Ted wasn't looking forward to the moment when the chickens would have to be slaughtered. Ilse, who grew up on a farm, was more down-to-earth about it. Most of the chickens went to a slaughterhouse, but twenty of them were slaughtered by a Zodiac worker, with Ted holding them. 'Really I wanted to let them go. Afterwards, on my bike, I thought: 'You've just killed your own chickens'.  But at least I know they had a good life. And 85 days is quite old for a meat chicken.'
What about the collaboration between the Applied Science student and the MSc student? Ted: 'That makes a research project like this more complete and more manageable. I'm more oriented to the practical side. Ilse measures how much grass an animal eats and I look at it from the farmer's point of view: what is its final weight?' The students are still working on their reports. Ted has drawn his conclusions. The chickens that got unlimited food were lazier and a good bit heavier than the chickens on rations. As a scientist, Ilse is more cautious. 'I will first have to study the results of the grass measurements and the soil samples.' 

Re:act