A research project designed to increase insect consumption by free-range laying hens has been launched by organic certification body in the UK, the Soil Association.
The project is being funded by a £20,000 grant from the Duchy Originals Future Farming Programme and led by researchers from University of Bristol and egg packer Stonegate at its Sutton Estates farm near Newbury, Berkshire.
The trial will run until August, with mealworms introduced to the hens' diet and placed on the range alive, to supplement the standard diet. Hens will be tagged and recorded to see whether range access is encouraged using insects.
The researchers will also use crop analysis to see how many insects are consumed, as well as monitoring feather pecking and baseline keel fracture rates.
Eggs will be collected at random and analysed for quality – such as shell thickness, omega-3, omega-6 fatty acid and yolk colour – and a check kept on numbers produced.
John Tarlton, senior research fellow at Bristol's school of veterinary sciences, said the project addressed a number of issues central to the future sustainability of free-range egg production. "These include improving welfare, reduced feed consumption (and cost) and enhancing the nutritional quality of eggs."
Chris Atkinson, Soil Association head of standards, commented: "This research project relates to a lot of our work around organic standards, in particular AssureWel – our farm welfare project.
"Not only will it look at a whole host of health and welfare benefits for hens, but will also complement our work in measuring the positive outcomes for birds."
The project is one of three announced by the Soil Association as part of its second research competition with the Duchy Originals Future Farming Programme.
The other two include a project looking at how grazing winter wheat with sheep can help control blackgrass, and one trying to increase levels of trace elements, including iodine, in organic milk.
Source: Poultry World