Free range poultry egg and meat production is a rapidly growing sector in Australia. Establishing free range production enterprises that meet retailer and consumer demands remains a challenge for the poultry industry. Furthermore, Australia is characterised by a wide array of climatic and topographic regions, some of which may expose free range birds to conditions that may affect their health status and productivity.
In order to evaluate the impact of free range production systems on the needs and challenges of farmers and to identify research priorities, a survey was conducted and distributed via e-mail, flyers, and online platforms. Within three months, 84 farmers responded to the survey, resulting in 56 completed questionnaires and 28 partially completed questionnaires. Of the complete responses, 30 egg farmers (EF) and 26 broiler farmers (BF) each answered 79 questions regarding their farm, range, feed, rearing, production and health status, as well as the environmental impact and their adaption to the free range system.
Layer farmers and BF, representing small and large enterprises, participated from all states. Flock size, stocking density and range design varied widely amongst producers. Broiler farmers were more uniform in their housing standards. Briefly, all BF used litter material in the barn, 65% of those used wood shavings; 96% sowed pastures/ grains, planted trees/ shrubs or both in the range; 96% used permanent ranges/sheds; 96% fed birds in the barn used predominantly automated feeding and drinking systems. On the other hand, LF exhibited a greater housing diversity; 74% used litter material in the barn, 30% of those wood shavings, 67% sowed and/or planted the range; 30% used permanent ranges/sheds, 43% rotated the range usage, 53% housed their chickens in mobile caravans and 50% fed birds on the range, using predominantly pan feeders.
Broiler farmers reported that the major factors causing the mortality were heat stress (64%), predation (55%), impaction (18%) and various diseases (36%) while LF attributed their losses to heat stress (37%), predation (42%), cannibalism (37%), impaction (21%), malnutrition (5%) and various diseases (21%). The survey results showed that 12% of BF and 23% of LF were unsatisfied with their ability to treat or prevent diseases. Farmers chose the free range system for bird welfare reasons (64%), consumer demand (60%) and to produce a better quality product (53%). Producers identified that research should be conducted in welfare (52%), pasture management (54%), nutrition (44%), bird health (44%), housing (40%), and economics (29%).
In summary, this survey presents a wide diversity of the needs and challenges for the free range layer and broiler production sectors in Australia. It has also identified a number of priority areas for research to improve free range production systems.