03 February 2014
Mulloon Creek Natural Farms manager helps free range chooks keep their cool
Graham Cowling, and thousands of fluffy chicks which landed this week under his care on a free-range farm east of Bungendore, are on a similar learning curve - to survive summer without air conditioning.
Fourteen months ago Mr Cowling left Queensland's intensive poultry industry where he worked for about three decades rearing chooks for Australia's biggest producers.
NSW Animal Liberation executive director Mark Pearson says chooks are the most abused of all farm animals, and susceptible to heat. ''As we speak 5.5 million meat chickens are in sheds, 1.8 million hens are in cages,'' Mr Pearson said.
The caged industry says chooks in air-conditioned sheds are in the best possible environment during heatwaves sweeping eastern Australia.In the intensive poultry industry Mr Cowling worked with huge evaporative coolers and fans which would draw air from cool cell pads down through the length of long sheds. ''They [intensive farmers] do a fantastic job,'' Mr Cowling said. ''Animal welfare is high on the agenda, but there is a natural way of doing it.''
Since taking up a new role as farm manager at Mulloon Creek Natural Farms, Mr Cowling is raising batches of 2500 day-old chicks flown from Toowoomba to withstand the heat of the day without air-conditioning.
Mr Cowling said free-range birds were not piled on top of one another. ''In normal free-range you are allowed to run 10,000 birds per hectare, to have certification for organic free range, you are allowed 1500 birds per hectare. We run 150 [per hectare].''
With no air conditioning to rely on, he makes sure the chooks are in optimum health.
The free range farm is part of the Mulloon Institute which researches sustainable agriculture.
Experts from several universities are studying the chooks and their natural environment. One university is proposing putting a camera on a chook to learn more about their feeding habits.
''The panting is the only way they can cool down through their respiratory system,'' Mr Cowling said. ''They get the wings open and try to get air movement through their body. Their feathers are quite warm. The birds are in a healthier state. On a bad week we had real hot weather, out of 12,500 birds, I probably lost about 80 over the week.''
Shade is a big help. Sails have been erected between sheds and 6500 trees planted to complement existing farm trees. ''When you go into shade, nature supplies a little air movement,'' Mr Cowling said.
The farm manager said free-range chooks were less stressed and these days he, too, felt less stressed.
He rejects claims an outbreak of avian flu at Young last year was caused by the free-range model. ''If you have healthy birds you won't have these problems,'' he said.
Photo courtesy of The Canberra Times and Rohan Thomson