Alpine chicken tour
A photo tour of a Swiss organic poultry farm, with a detailed look at innovative production techniques

By Jim Riddle

How in the world can you manage a successful egg laying operation without trimming beaks, without feeding synthetic methionine, and by providing real outdoor access? Those are among the questions a group of Midwestern organic livestock farmers went to Switzerland to answer.

From October 4-15, 2002, 25 Midwestern organic farmers took part in a tour of organic dairy and poultry farms and cheese processing facilities in Germany, northern Italy, and Switzerland. The trip was sponsored by the Mid-America International Agri-Trade Council (MIATCO), and organized by Perry Brown, Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection.

While we visited very interesting biodynamic and organic farms and facilities in Germany and Italy, this article focuses on organic poultry production in Switzerland, beginning with a visit to the FiBL research institute, just outside the lovely town of Frick.

Poultry research plots at FiBL

At FiBL, more than 85 agronomists, environmental scientists, biologists, veterinarians, sociologists, and experts in other fields work full time on organic research projects.

FiBL recently published a dossier entitled, “Organic farming enhances soil fertility and biodiversity”, which presents the results from a 21 year field trial. FiBL also released “An evaluation for Organic Plant Breeding.” FiBL has research projects underway in viticulture, veterinary medicine, animal welfare, fruit production, marketing, and international cooperation. For more information, visit www.fibl.ch

 

2000 bird layer house on the Dieter Weber farm

Researchers from FiBL conduct many on-farm research projects at numerous locations. We visited the Dieter Weber farm. Mr. Weber raises produce for a roadside market and has a pick-your-own flower operation. He also raises 2000 laying hens. The flock averages 96% productivity with less than 2% mortality.

 

 

 



Inside the laying house

None of Mr. Dieter’s laying hens are “de-beaked”. Pecking is prevented through a variety of strategies. The house and outdoor areas are subdivided into units of 500 birds. There are equal numbers of brown and white breeds, breaking up the pecking order. There are a few roosters in each flock. Birds are given plenty of space, both indoors and out. They are provided with a variety of roosts and activities to satisfy their natural behavior. They are provided a balanced ration, ensuring that they have plenty of protein. The building is well ventilated, with excellent air quality.

 

 

The “winter garden”

A fundamental component of the Weber laying house, and all of the poultry operations we visited in Europe, is the “winter garden”. This is essentially a screened-in porch with deep wood chip bedding. Birds have access to the winter gardens year-round. The winter gardens have roosts, oyster shell grit, dusting areas, and water. Hens are provided with fresh air and sunlight. Mr. Weber’s winter garden is located on the south side of the building.



Time for a bath

When birds move between the laying house and winter garden, they pass through a sand dust bath. Judging by the number of birds “bathing” during our visit, this appears to be a popular activity. The dust bath helps prevent external parasites such as mites and lice, and satisfies a natural need of the hens.


 

 

 

 

 

 

Outdoor access

Doors automatically open at set times to give each flock access to outdoor runs. At the time of our visit, the doors were set to open at 11:00 am. When asked if the birds actually go out, Dieter laughed, and said, “The birds are lined up – they know when the doors will open.” The paddocks are managed rotationally. There are 4 paddocks for each flock, meaning that 3 paddocks are idle at any time. The runs connecting the paddocks to the winter garden are covered with netting to provide protection from birds of prey.

 


Timed scratch feeder

According to Deter Weber, the challenge with the outdoor runs is getting the hens back inside. The doors automatically close at 4:00 pm. To coax the birds back in, scratch feed is automatically dispensed in the winter garden at 3:45 pm.


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Scratch feed mix

The scratch feed used once a day to lure the birds back into the winter garden consists of whole small grains (wheat, oats, and barley), cracked corn, and sunflower seeds.



 

 

 

Finding out the ration

Esther Zeltner of FiBL shares the secret formula – a balanced poultry ration with no synthetic methionine. The ration is made by a local organic feed mill from small grains, sunflower seeds, field peas, alfalfa meal, corn gluten meal, potato starch, yeast extract, vitamins and minerals. The corn gluten meal, potato starch, and yeast extract (all non-organic sources) provide most of the methionine and amino acids. (Under European Union and Swiss regulations, organic livestock can be fed a low percentage of non-organic feed.) The birds also get essential amino acids from field peas, alfalfa meal, sunflower seeds, and from grazing and scratching outdoors.

 

 


Egg stamping machine

Throughout Europe, eggs are stamped when they are packed. The machine at right stamps a flat of eggs. Each egg shows the name of the farm, region produced, date, and/or organic certification.

 

 

 

The finished product

The egg at left was laid in Freiland, Germany, not on the Dieter Weber farm. It was certified biodynamic by Demeter. Note the conspicuous display of the Demeter logo on the egg carton. Many products in Europe prominently display the name and logo of the certification body similar to a “brand” identity. Note also that the carton carries the “best buy” date for the eggs and the carton is designed to be easily sold in half dozen units.

The Swiss may be known for watches, bank accounts, and cheese, but with over 10 percent of the farms in organic production, ground breaking research conducted by FiBL, and advances in organic poultry production, Switzerland is also a leader in organic agriculture.

 


 

Jim Riddle is an active member of the organic community. During the past 22 years, he has been an organic farmer, gardener, inspector, educator, policy analyst, author, and consumer. Now he can add journalist to his resume. Jim also heads up the New Farm™ organic certification answer team. To read more of Jim's work and get answers to your organic certification questions visit The New Farm Certification Page.