Tyson Foods reaffirmed a commitment to animal welfare in its 2018 Sustainability Report, as it has for many years. The significance of the 2018 report comes from the fact that in October of 2019, it placed the first flock of chickens on its new broiler research farm. The Tyson Broiler Welfare Research Farm provides Tyson Foods, Karen Christensen, senior director of animal welfare, and her team an on-farm laboratory to study broiler chickens and ultimately find out what the birds want and need to live their best lives.

“What’s unique about the Tyson Broiler Welfare Research Farm is that it’s on a commercial scale, and we think that’s really important when we’re making decisions about welfare,” Christensen said. “We want to make sure that those decisions translate across the industry, so we’re not taking results from pen trials, but actually making these important evaluations in a commercial setting.”

The layout

Four commercial broiler houses occupy the $1.2 million 80-acre farm. Based on current market weight, Tyson places approximately 19,000 birds in each 42-by-500-foot house. Four full-time Tyson employees take care of the farm, including collecting data Christensen and the research team need for the trials in progress.

“The farm is really a fantastic size for doing research because it represents everything you would want in a commercial setting, but it’s just the right size,” Christensen said. “It’s not so big that it’s unwieldy from that perspective.”

The commercial equipment used to care for the birds and the environment the birds see and live in replicate what is used in commercial operations. This allows the information obtained during research to directly translate to Tyson’s regular broiler-producing operations after data are retrieved and analyzed. The houses have the capability to capture environmental and video data, as well as audio data to listen to, and understand from a welfare perspective, what the birds “say” to researchers.

“We also have viewing rooms at the farm where we can view what’s happening inside the house without the birds seeing us or us interfering with their natural behavior,” Christensen said. “Those viewing rooms are a great place for us to bring visitors and customers to have really detailed conversations about what’s going on in the house in a really comfortable environment without having to take a large group of people in the house for a long time.”

Christensen said she and the team still go in and visit the birds, but they’ve come to understand the value of the viewing rooms when observing the birds.

Tyson equipped all four houses with typical lighting seen in most commercial production operations, but also installed natural lighting options in two of the houses. This gives Tyson and the research team the ability to switch between natural and standard lighting depending on the trials they’re working on, and the first trials concern lighting.

When birds from the research farm hit their designated market weights, they become part of Tyson’s regular protein supply.

The research

Through a grant provided by the US Poultry & Egg Association, in conjunction with the University of Arkansas, Tyson’s Broiler Welfare Research Farm experiments with lighting and listens to the birds to discern what they prefer and what they don’t prefer. The research farm currently works with enrichments as well, listening to what the birds tell them about the types of enrichments they favor.

“What’s really unique about the way we’re doing the research is we want the birds to have a voice in the project,” Christensen said. “So, we’re letting them tell us what kinds of things are important for them. Rather than just giving them something and saying, ‘there you go,’ we’re really trying to get them to tell us what’s important to them, what they’ll react with, and make that environment more meaningful for them.”

As time goes on, the research farm will delve into other trials. Christensen mentioned “asking the birds” about density and other welfare issues. But the research farm is a long-game proposition. The trials and subsequent data need the time necessary to ensure reliability.

“It takes several iterations of each one of these projects in order to get the confidence that the answers we get are repeatable,” Christensen said. “So, the projects we’re working on, we will be working on them for extended periods of time. The lighting and enrichment project we’re on right now with the US Poultry & Egg grant is a two-year project. After that, we have some other things in mind. Looking again at continuing with enrichments, and then possibly density.”

The scope

Aside from the research trials and data collection, birds on the broiler research farm live, progress and serve the same ultimate purpose that birds on any other production facility do. The birds come from one of Tyson’s hatcheries and go to the research farm instead of a commercial grower’s farm.

“They’re on the placement list just like any of those going to our family farmers,” Christensen said. “We’re scheduled to receive those same chicks that would potentially go to any of our growers.”

Once birds on the research farm reach their target weights, they become part of Tyson’s normal protein supply. Because the birds become part of that general supply, the research farm doesn’t do anything that might jeopardize their placement there.

“The ability for them to go to the plant gives us the opportunity to follow those birds through the whole process,” Christensen said. “So, if we are doing something where we’re interested in how it may affect meat quality or yield or something like that, then we have the ability to follow them all the way through the process.”

The Tyson team and those who work at the research farm believe the project adds value in innumerable ways beyond yield or production. Many of those ways will come from experience as the research farm does trials and learns. Presently, Christensen and her team believe the purpose of the farm is for researchers and commercial growers to learn and communicate information.

“A lot of times we ask them for input they can share with us, that we can take into account when we’re doing things at the farm,” Christensen said of Tyson growers. “We really want it to be a two-way street and an open conversation with the ultimate goal of continuous improvement in welfare.”

The research farm operates at the same scale and incorporates the same process as a standard commercial production farm.

The vision

By the time the coronavirus (COVID-19) hit, the research farm had worked through two flocks of birds and begun the lighting trials currently in progress. Fortunately, the farm requires a limited number of people to operate. So, while Tyson keeps contact to a minimum, Christensen and her team still run the farm with the ability to socially distance and be safe.

“We participate in all of the safety precautions that Tyson and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and everyone has outlined for us,” Christensen said. “We take everybody’s temperatures and people fill out a questionnaire and we use masks, but we still have time to be at the farm, to engage with the animals, to do the research and make sure their welfare is our top priority.”

COVID-19 caused, and continues to cause, unprecedented impacts on everything, but the meat and poultry industry especially. The Tyson Broiler Welfare Research Farm is no different. While the ultimate goal of research will continue regardless of the pandemic, Tyson hoped to use the farm to show its customers and consumers the company’s dedication to animal welfare and its efforts to meet key welfare indicators, as well as educate.

Tyson will use blogs, videos, podcasts and any other communication methods to disseminate the message of the research farm while waiting for its opportunity to get people on location for in-person education on compassionate care and sound science regarding animal welfare.

“That’s our goal, and like everything in the world that’s been impacted by COVID, we’re anxious for a resolution so we can get back to sharing what we’re doing in a very personal upfront way at the farm,” Christensen said.

Christensen stressed Tyson’s commitment to animal welfare across all the species it raises for food, not just broilers. She said Tyson will never be satisfied in its animal welfare position and reiterated the company’s dedication to continuous improvement.

“Our vision is to be the world leader in animal welfare through compassionate care and sound science, because we owe that to the animals that are entrusted to our care,” Christensen added.