Fowl Play

Students' research has the potential to impact the chicken industry

One hot summer afternoon, Laura Word ’13 carefully stepped through the shaded chicken enclosure of the Randolph College Organic Garden, her eyes on a hen scrambling across the dirt just ahead. Word lunged for the bird. With a flurry of wings and a high-pitched squawk, the hen escaped her grasp.

“You need to help me corner her,” she told her research partner and fiancé Michael Taylor ’13. Before long Word cradled the chicken in her arms and was able to carry it to a scale for weighing.

After noting the hen’s weight, Word let it go, and another chase began.

The two students spent much of last summer leading a research project that investigated the effects of grassland on chicken health and egg quality. As part of the research, they weighed chickens, collected eggs, and conducted analysis in the biology lab. One of their professors believes this research could add something unique to the scholarly discussion of the best ways to raise chickens.

“Many people have compared conventional farming to organic and free-range farming,” said Adam Houlihan, a biology professor who worked with Word and Taylor. “But we can’t find any studies where they took two free-range, organic populations to see if access to this grassland truly does make a difference. This is unique from other studies that have been published.”

Word has been involved in the Organic Garden since her first year at Randolph. Taylor invited her to a garden work day when the two started dating. She enjoyed taking a break from the daily grind to work with her hands. She also loved feeding the chickens, especially when she would pull up a fistful of grass; the birds darted toward her and tried to be the first to reach the green treat.

Word, who hopes to pursue a Ph.D. in environmental toxicology, wondered why the chickens loved the grass so much. Could it add something important to their diet? “You would think that if they have grass, their health is going to be much better. But being a scientist, I couldn’t just trust my gut. That might not be the case,” Word said.

So during the winter of her junior year, Word decided to find the answer.

In preparation for the research, Taylor and Houlihan built a new enclosure and chicken coop that would allow them to move 14 hens into an area with grass, while keeping another 14 in the normal chicken enclosure without grass. Throughout the summer, Word and Taylor fed each group an identical ration of organic food. They frequently weighed the hens, took samples to look for bacterial infection, and collected the eggs for analysis.

Word learned a lot about doing original research. “When you do experiments in structured labs, everything works,” she said. “When you do research like this, there are a lot of skills that you can refine, such as analysis and problem solving.”

For example, to measure the yolk mass from each egg, Word had to research a way of separating the yolk from the white. She finally accomplished this by rolling the yolks on paper towels until the white was absorbed.

Word’s hypothesis was that the chickens in the grassy area would grow more quickly and produce hardier eggs because they could supplement their diet with insects and grass in the field. But she was surprised by some of the results. Every week, the chickens with grassland grew more slowly than the other chickens.

“They were eating less feed,” Word said. “They were replacing some of their feed with the grass and bugs and seeds. But the ration is really energy dense, and is packed with stuff that they can deposit as muscle and grow quickly. When they eat grass, it takes more energy to process it.”

Despite the dietary differences, both groups of chickens had high protein content in their eggs. However, the eggs produced by the hens with access to grass had thicker shells, which is one factor the industry uses to measure egg quality. These eggs also had darker yolks, signaling a higher concentration of antioxidants.

The group concluded that depending on the size of the farm, farmers could save money on food costs by raising their chickens in a grassy area. Word is currently writing a paper about the research and hopes to publish it in an agricultural journal this year.

Houlihan said that the research will help farmers create better free-range environments for chickens. “There is this push toward free-range rearing practices, but free range simply means that the birds have been given some period of time outdoors,” he said. “It doesn’t define the quality of the outdoor space, and it doesn’t define the period of time.

“This tiny little experiment with 28 birds has the potential to change some of the ways that the industry conducts business,” he added. “If you get better eggs by giving your birds access to grass, and it becomes cost efficient, this could have some real impact. It’s not just us playing with chickens.”