I almost became a chicken farmer for a few years. Anyone would be forgiven for wondering why a forest scientist became so interested in chickens. I had spent many years developing and testing improved hardwood tree varieties (genetic research), and improving growing methods (silviculture research) but was ever-mindful of the extreme longterm payback for woodland owners. My mind inevitably turned to novel ways of generating income by diversification while the trees were growing for some 50 years or more.
Agroforestry was an obvious place to start. Arable crops can be combined with trees but overtime result in reduced crop yields and the trees, being open-grown, are often poor in quality without intensive management. What about animals: cattle eat trees and pigs uproot them, but what about chickens? On learning that broiler chicken production had one of the highest economic returns of any farming system I was definitely interested in finding out more.
An introduction to Professor Marian Dawkins of the Department of Zoology at the University of Oxford was of monumental importance. Coincidentally Prof Dawkins had come to the same idea about combining chickens and trees but from the perspective of the chicken, rather than the tree. Her ground-breaking research had shown that only a tiny percentage of ‘free-range’ birds ever actually left their huge houses, usually containing 20,000 birds or more, even though the birds had access to open space beyond. She realised that chickens originated from jungle fowl and were essentially agoraphobic: where the chance tree existed in a barren field, the chickens would crowd under its shelter.
So the concept of silvo-poultry was born: a system that would produce quality trees in a true forest system, while supporting free-ranging behaviour in chickens. The chickens would not only provide much-needed cashflow but also fertilise the trees while they establish, and even control competing weeds. The trees would encourage the birds to range more, reducing behavioral problems due to boredom and crowding, and even improve taste for the consumer. Financially such a system would generate annual profit while a valuable long-term investment was maturing in the trees. The best of both tree and chicken systems combined in a perfect marriage.
However, was it possible to prove that these ideas, so good on paper, would actually work? Find out in a later post.