New free-range unit helps students study

A new 7000-bird unit was completed in December at Harper Adams University College in Shropshire, and showcases latest ideas in design and construction

It replaces a 4000-bird unit erected in 1990 that had become obsolete and which was demolished in July.

Poultry farm manager David Chadwick said the new, naturally ventilated house demonstrated some of the most recent developments in technology.

“We needed a building that reflected what people are erecting today. This is in step with the modern industry.

“It will allow the university to significantly strengthen its teaching and research expertise within the sector,” he says.

The unit will be run on commercial lines under the Noble Foods Woodland Egg scheme, and should have a pay-back time of six years, he predicts.

As a teaching aid it would enable students to study commercially realistic costings and returns, and carry out management exercises, says Mr Chadwick.

In terms of industry-relevant research, a busy programme of projects was planned to attempt to solve some of the more immediate concerns in the free-range sector, such as feather pecking, which could be studied using video surveillance techniques.

However, an important initial project would focus on ranging behaviour, and the question of how to get the birds to leave the house.

“It’s wrong not to get the birds on a free-range unit to go outside. The question of how to achieve it is a problem we are going to keep meeting in the industry,” predicts Mr Chadwick.

The unit would also have a third role as a demonstration unit for would-be new entrants to the industry.


According to Harper Adams, free-range systems by definition should give poultry the opportunity to range freely.

“Ranging is important, as it enables the birds to perform a variety of normal behaviours that cannot be performed in more intensive laying-hen systems,” says Mark Rutter.

“Freedom to express normal behaviour is one of the Farm Animal Welfare Council’s ‘Five Freedoms’, and so promoting ranging helps us meet the welfare needs of the hens. However, birds are initially ‘nervous’ of wide-open spaces, and usually need some sort of encouragement to range beyond the buildings.”

How can we get birds on to the range?

“Various factors have been shown to be important in encouraging ranging, including providing some sort of cover (such as trees, bushes or maize) near to the buildings, or adding a few adult cockerels, which, being more inclined to venture out than hens, can help encourage other birds to range.”

The college is planning a number of final-year student projects to investigate some of the factors that may influence ranging behaviour. There were two key questions that needed to be tackled, he said:

Can hens be trained to range?

“One suggested approach to promoting ranging is to get the hens to associate the rattling of a can, for example, with a preferred feed. This is done initially indoors, and once birds are responding to the stimulus, the procedure can be performed just outside the pop holes to encourage them out.

“Once out, the procedure can be carried out progressively further away from the buildings to help the birds to range. A student project will test whether or not this approach is effective. The unit will be divided into four sections, with two sections being trained and two untrained, and the effect of training on ranging will be recorded,” he says.

Can the type of access influence ranging behaviour?

The practicalities of building design usually required the pop-holes to be raised above ground level, says Dr Rutter.

“The hens then require some form of aid, such as a ramp or steps to gain access to and from the house. Student projects will look at features of different access aids, and whether these have an impact on ranging behaviour.”

The research plan will be in three parts. First, it will establish the preferences of hens for different types of access, such as ramps, steps or ladders by providing hens with different choices and observing which types of access are most preferred.

Second, it will take the most preferred and least preferred choice and investigate how the attributes of the access (such as ramp angle, number of steps) influence preference.

Lastly, the project will compare ranging behaviour when all the pop-holes have the least preferred access, and when all pop-holes have the most preferred access, to determine the extent to which access type affects ranging.

Unit at a glance

  • The house was constructed by Morspan on a base installed by Connop and Son. The house equipment was supplied by Vencomatic, Big Dutchman and Potters.

Want to know more

Contact Mark Rutter at Harper Adams University College

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