Brazil: Free is the Magic Number

Murilo Quintiliano of Food Animal Initiative (FAI) Brazil describes the benefits of combining free-range broiler production with sheep and timber production - a Model Farm Project.
calendar icon 1 October 2012
clock icon 8 minute read

In some countries, free-range chicken production is on the up. In the UK, for example, according to Defra, free-range and organic products make up six per cent of the poultry market and this figure is rising. Elsewhere however, it is a different story, despite demand. Brazil is a case in point.

“Currently, there is no legislation regarding free-range certification, so free-range producers – known as ‘caipira’ – must follow organic regulations,” explains Murilo Quintiliano, Executive Director of FAI Brazil.

“For that, there is a federal law (Law 10.831) and more than 30 organic certification systems. Of these, the most respected is the Instituto Bio Dinâmico (IBD). However, less than 0.1 per cent of chicken meat production in Brazil is currently organic.”

The thing is, Brazil is considered well suited to free-range broiler production due to its climate.

“The weather in our region – the South East – changes little during the year and here in São Paulo State, temperatures range from 18–32°C with an average of 22°C,” explains Mr Quintiliano.

So why are there not more farmers choosing free-range? He blames higher costs.

He said: “Organic regulations originally set slaughter age at 80 days. Now it’s been reduced to 70 days – better but not enough. It still means costs of electricity, feed and storage can be 50 to 80 per cent higher than with conventional production. The feed used, containing no animal by-products, also adds to costs.”

Fear of avian flu is another factor despite, says Mr Quintiliano, a lack of scientific research to justify these concerns.

Also, because the product is more expensive, the market is restricted.

He explained: “People are interested in free-range but standard chicken is four to five times cheaper. That said, current production doesn’t provide enough free-range chicken for the market.”

"Brazil is considered well suited to free-range broiler production due to its climate."

Mr Quintiliano believes only reduced prices plus standardisation of certification will substantially increase free-range/organic production. This is why he helped launch the Free-range Broiler Development System at Santa Terezinha farm, as part of the Model Farm Project, to find ways to improve production and boost economic viability via diversification of production.

The 4,000-bird unit was built in 2010 in partnership with Korin, which also provides feed, medication and technical assistance.

Mr Quintiliano said: “Korin is the most important contract company in Brazil producing and selling what they call ‘natural’ chicken. It also has organic chicken. Through our partnership, they will also be able to develop free-range chicken.”

Sheep were integrated into the system in 2011 with 100 Santa Inês sheep using the same range as the birds. Fruit and timber trees are being added next.

“The idea is to show that free-range is an option for small and medium producers, if combined with other sources of income on the farm,” says Mr Quintiliano.

The System

Table 1. Key features and benefits of Free-range Broiler Development System at Santa Terezinha farm in Brazil
Key features Benefits
1.6-hectare range split into two (but can be split into four) areas used by sheep and chickens, rotated throughout the year. Provides one square metre per bird and accommodates sheep (62 animals per hectare in summer, 30 animals per hectare in winter).
Provides enrichment for birds due to variation in environment.
Rotation benefits soil by avoiding nutrient overload and improves health of animals by avoiding build-up of diseases.
Standard shed (12 × 33 metres) with open sides, curtains regulated according to temperature, vents, nebulizers and pop holes (10 × length: 2 metres; height: 0.5 metres) providing access to range.

Stocking density is 27.5kg (10 birds) per square metre.
Climate inside sheds can be controlled during summer when temperatures can reach 34–36°C and in winter, when low air humidity levels can be problematic.
Reduces problems with litter (leg and foot health) and chance of cannibalism. Improves ability to express natural behaviour.
CPK broilers. Better feed conversion ratio and carcass yield grade and appeared less aggressive than other strains trialled. This slower growing breed also has fewer leg health issues associated with fast growth rate seen in standard commercial broilers.
Chickens arrive at day-old, with access to range after 24 days (at least one square metre per bird).
Slaughter age: 70 days.
Range access improves conditions and helps animals express natural behaviour. Meat quality also improved.
Birds fed on corn- and soy-based feed provided by Korin. Quantities vary according to age; total for 70 days 15.8kg per 4,000 birds.
Medication (organic acids) provided by Korin.
Water sourced from well on the farm.
Standard manual feeders (40 adult birds per feeder) and bell drinkers (70 adult birds per drinker).
Non animal-origin based feed is perceived as more natural and reduces risk of contamination of the birds.
Quality is higher than with other sources.
Santa Inês sheep Easy lambing and more resistance to endo and ecto parasites.
Rotational grazing; sheep use same range as chickens (but not at the same time) as part of total range area. Efficiency of land-use is improved.
Sheep fed on grass and mineral salt in rainy season (October to April).
Corn and soybean supplement provided in dry season (May to September).
Feed mixed on farm.
Body condition monitored in order to provide sufficient feed according to pasture availability.
Costs are reduced and a good nutritional condition is maintained throughout the year.
Weaned lambs sold on at 15–20kg Good weight for selling to feedlots or to be raised by other producers.
Fruit and timber trees to be added during 2012. Additional source of income and provision of shade for the animals.

The Results

The welfare benefits of the system are being monitored using the FAI Outcome Measures, adapted from Welfare Quality® 2009 (see Table 2).

Table 2. Outcome measures for the Free-range Broiler Development System
(based on two flock assessments of 100 birds at around 2.4kg; March and July 2012.
Outcome measure
(best to worst scale)
Average (% birds with score 0)
Gait Score: 6-point scale (0–5) 0.13 (91)
Hock burn: 5-point scale (0–2) 0 (100)
Pododermatitis: 5-point scale (0–2) 0 (100)
Plumage cleanliness: 4-point scale (0–3) 0.25 (76)
Feather cover: 5-point scale (0–2) 0.04 (95)
Total mortality 3.5%

“The main benefits are that this slower-growing breed has fewer leg health issues associated with the fast growth rate seen in standard commercial broilers,” explains Dr Ashleigh Bright of the Model Farm Project. “Also, the range provides more space and enrichment due to variation in environment and due to Brazil’s warm climate, birds will actually want to go outside.”

There are economic benefits too. “The price paid per chicken is 30–50 per cent higher than with standard chicken,” explains Mr Quintiliano. “Integration of the sheep and timber can also increase overall income. The economic impact of adding the sheep is still being assessed, but weaned lambs are currently sold on for R$6 to R$8 per kilo liveweight.”

Do you know your chicken?
Organic broilers:
No animal-origin feed, non-organic fertilizers, herbicides, additives, antibiotics, anticoccidials or growth hormones.
Stocking density inside shed: 10 square metres per bird; range access: 5.0 square metres per bird.
Slaughter age: 70 days.
Natural or alternative broilers:
Conventional system but without use of animal-origin feed, antibiotics, anticoccidials or growth promoters.
Stocking density inside shed: 27.5kg per square metre; no range access.
Slaughter age: 42–46 days.
Free-range broilers:
No animal-origin feed, antibiotics, anticoccidials or growth promoters.
Birds stay inside shed until 25 days of age at 10 birds per square metre (27.5kg per square metre) then access to range at one square metre per animal.
Slaughter age: 70 days.

Next Steps

The system is at an interesting stage of development. Integration of the timber and fruit trees will take place in 2012, with trees planted at a rate of around 700 trees per hectare. Eucalyptus is being considered due to its fast growth rate and commercial opportunities; rubber trees may also be planted.

“It is really about efficient use of land – using the same area for the trees, sheep and chickens,” explains Dr Bright. “The trees provide shade for the animals. Plus diversification can provide a better return for the farmer. Tree-planting may also be good for soil stabilisation, biodiversity and carbon sequestration.”

The team is also working to improve welfare and production (mortality rates and feed conversion) and address disease.

“The main issue is bacterial contamination which must be continually controlled due to non-use of antibiotics,” explains Mr Quintiliano. Thus, the team is ensuring litter is well composted between flocks and kept dry and friable, and are ensuring good ventilation and appropriate temperatures.

Mr Quintiliano is also keen to revisit the slaughter age. He said: “In the EU, free-range legislation for broilers allows birds to be slaughtered at 56 days of age. It’s more suitable than the 70 days for free-range in Brazil because slower growing strains can reach slaughter weight (2.2kg) by 56 days of age and have good welfare.

In Brazil, we need to find the correct age to improve the cost-benefit ratio; I believe it’s nearer this number.”

September 2012

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