Pasture-raised hens: a good idea for farming in the mountains

In the mountains of Carnia, a group of farmers discuss animal and environmentally friendly farming

Malborghetto is a small town in Friuli’s Val Canale valley, a few kilometers from the Austrian border, which hosted a meeting on May 11 and 12 organized by Veterinari Senza Frontiere (VSF), the University of Perugia and Slow Food as part of the European Ppilow project. For two days veterinarians, animal husbandry specialists and some 20 chicken farmers discussed and debated free-range systems and how to ensure the animal welfare of poultry. From the working group thus emerged the first nucleus of the network of “slow” poultry farmers, committed to raising their animals respectfully, while also ensuring environmental and nutritional quality.

In the meeting, which also included an “on field” part at a poultry farm that produces eggs from “pasture-raised” Leghorn hens, Cesare Castellini, from the University of Perugia, explained how from the 1950s to the present day genetic selection has changed the structure of the chicken, due to the continuous search for ever-higher growths. Indeed, the size of the breast has tripled, causing hypertrophic conditions and possible sites of malformations (striations), the bone structure has weakened because it is unable to support the weight of the body.

Commercial laying chicken breeds have a very high productivity (today a hen can produce more than 300 eggs per year, compared to about 160-180 for traditional breeds), but they require a large investment in energy, which weakens the animals and affects their welfare. It is no coincidence that the life cycle of these animals is shorter than that of traditional poultry breeds, and after little more than a year they are in fact slaughtered. For these reasons, they are poorly suited to extensive farming because they are unable to make adequate use of the pasture available to them. Free-range farming with slow-growing breeds, improved by crossbreeding with stronger and more hardy traditional breeds, could be a good solution, capable of providing quality meat and eggs while respecting the ethological needs of the animals. In fact, the Ppilow project research carried out by the University of Perugia focuses on this goal.

Pietro Venezia, of Veterinarians without Borders Ngo (VSF), explained what it means to breed with respect according to the One Welfare approach adopted by the Ppilow project, which sees the farm as an ecosystem in which the welfare of the animals, those who breed them and the environmental context itself must be in balance. Also highlighted during the meeting was the Ebene app, developed by ITAVI , a Ppilow project partner, which allows farmers to independently assess the welfare of their poultry.

Pietro Venezia also illustrated the permaculture technique, which is the result of careful planning that carefully evaluates every choice based on the environmental conditions in which the chicken hen houses are located: from planting trees to the rationed use of pasture, from recycling rainwater to the use of clean energy, all while carefully taking into account the layout of the land, the strength of the winds, and placing structures in the best possible location for the best well-being of the animals, the land, and even the farmer. One of the principles guiding permaculture is that the farm should not produce waste, because any waste can be a useful resource to be used for another function. For example, horticultural waste left on the ground in greenhouses, as the Vuerich farm that hosted the visit does, during the winter feeds the chickens, which, at the same time, by scratching around on it, fertilize the soil, fertilizing it for the next spring crop.

The Malborghetto farm, run by two young sisters, Ilaria and Federica, raises about 400 laying hens outdoors, as well as beef cattle, sheep and horses also used for educational farm activities. Free-range rearing is based on the use of two mobile poultry houses placed on uncultivated areas near the river circumscribed by electrified anti-predator nets, where the hens can roam freely in search of insects, larvae and weeds. It is an example of how poultry farming in mountain areas can be a very attractive resource both for the use of marginal areas and as an income supplement.

Being near the forests that cover the steep mountain slopes, the farm is very exposed to predators, and in fact, the two days also discussed how to avoid predation, particularly by buzzards that attack the chickens almost daily at certain times. Some guard dogs specially trained to drive away predatory birds, such as the Pastore della Sila dog breed, could help.

The meeting concluded with a discussion among the breeders and technicians on the aspects that animal-friendly and environmentally friendly farming should include. From what was supposed to be an educational meeting, something more was born: the Friulian, Venetian and Emilian chicken breeders gathered in Malborghetto started the creation of a network of “slow food” breeders that will meet again and work, in the coming months, on the creation of a manifesto. At Cheese they will meet with other breeders, committed as they are to breeding with environmental awareness and respect for animals. Because, as one farmer said at the close of the day, “industrialized farming has generated great problems, now it is up to us to show that another farming, different from the one practiced in recent years, is possible, that it exists.”







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