“Aw, no bugs!” exclaims Betsey Miller after meticulously pouring over a wheelbarrow’s worth of decomposing leaf litter and manure. “The chickens are doing a great job, but it’s still fun for us entomologists to find insects once in a while!”
A pen of praiseworthy red-ranger chickens peck away at the grass a few yards away, devouring beetles, larvae and weeds with single-minded perseverance. Their fiery plumage stands out against an emerald backdrop of spring foliage, like a premonition of rosy fruit to come.
Miller and her colleagues at Oregon State University (Extension and Department of Horticulture) brought the pest-seeking fowl to La Mancha’s Brooklane Organic Apple Orchard in Corvallis to conduct a pilot study on the use of free-range poultry for biodynamic pest control. Here, the birds move through the leafy rows of apple trees inside open-air enclosures known as “chicken tractors,” mowing down unwanted vegetation with the efficiency of weed whackers, hunting every apple maggot out of its earthen den and growing into succulent, free-range broilers in the process.
Poultry vs pests
The agricultural mentality of the central Willamette Valley, with its patchwork of small organic farms, vineyards and burgeoning local meat scene, makes it an ideal place to test out such an unconventional approach. While commercial apple growers rely heavily on the application of pesticides and herbicides to control orchard conditions, organic growers have limited options. Says Miller, “we are trying to find a way to manage insects that is more affordable and less labor intensive for these farmers.” To achieve this goal, they designed the first experiment in the state to use outdoor chickens, putting them to use in a synergistic approach to small-scale agriculture. Asked how this unusual project got off the ground in the first place, Miller says, “people here want to see agriculture go in a different direction.”
The collaboration between a small poultry operation and an apple grower is a case in point. Travis Witmer of TnT Farms in Philomath handles the 150 birds at Brooklane. He explains, “I could never raise this many birds on my small plot of land. I do have to drive out here every day, but other than that, the workload and the costs are the same.” Miller and Witmer hope that this pilot study may serve as inspiration for other local chicken farmers to rent out their birds to orchards with pest problems — the same way a plumber offers his services to fix a clogged drain. So far, the results look promising.
As with most agricultural endeavors, the key to success lies in perfect timing. “To comply with organic standards,” explains Miller, “Brooklane cannot apply manure within 90 days of harvest.” Since chickens are veritable fertilizer factories, this means they have to be off the premises — and hitting the farmer’s market — by June. Witmer put the chicks out in mid-March, the perfect time to start raising broilers before the summer heat sets in, and one of the most critical times for apple pest control. Overwintering maggots start to stir in the soil as the winter chill retreats. This year, however, they will awake to a much more hostile orchard than the one their progenitors knew the previous fall.
But how does Miller know if the birds can hold up their end of the bargain? Miller plans to conduct vegetation surveys before and after the birds pass through an area to quantify their ability to control weeds. However, all you need to see their success is a pair of eyes. The spots where the tractors stood for a day or two have literally been grazed down to bare soil and remain that way for weeks. Weeds harbor harmful insects and compete with fruit trees for nutrients, but suppressing their growth requires labor-intensive mowing or the application of herbicides. Or, as it turns out, a dozen roving bands of ravenous red rangers.
No ordinary chickens
To determine how well the chickens manage insect populations, Miller and colleagues have come up with a clever plan. They add several hundred benign pest lookalikes to a heaping pile of leaf litter and put it inside the chickens’ pen. Only 24 hours later, they sift through the remains and count the survivors. In control studies where the litter sits out overnight but never sees the voracious fowl, they recover 99% of the decoys they plant. However today, after a night inside the pen marked by a blaze of orange polka dot ribbon, the researchers can’t find a single bug in this heap of fragrant humus.
The staggering efficiency of these birds stems from the fact that they are no ordinary Cornish Crosses, the most common breed of broiler chickens. “You could leave a Cornish Cross out here for a week and it would just wait by its trough for you to bring more feed,” laughs Witmer. Red rangers, on the other hand, were bred to hunt. Descendents of the original foraging bird, the aptly-named freedom ranger, red rangers leave no leaf unturned during the 12 weeks it takes them to mature. Plus, boasts Witmer, the rangers recently won an informal blind taste test among pastured poultry farmers in the Willamette Valley by a unanimous vote. Not bad for a working bird!
However, many questions remain. Will the birds eat beneficial insects too? Will researchers be able to detect decreases in deleterious coddling moth populations? And will the laying hens they put out in the autumn help further drive down pest problems?
It’s too early to say, but Miller is hopeful. “Our goal for this year is to work out the kinks so that we can do bigger projects in the future.” This might include splitting the orchard in half, with chickens working a wide swath of trees instead of the few rows they tackled this year. Or monitoring apple yields and the percent of damaged fruit from year to year now that the chickens are on the prowl. With more solid data under their belts, Miller and Witmer hope to share their findings with farmers through Extension, at small-farm conferences and with apple growers’ groups.
In any case, they plan to keep at it. “What motivates me,” explains Miller, as she looks up from a sieve full of decomposing detritus, “is to find elegant solutions that persist through time.” As the birds dive into a new batch of bug-filled compost, they demonstrate the point she makes next: “We just have to set this machine in motion and stand back.”