Watching chickens peck around for insects should be an utterly normal experience, but in this day and age, most hens are kept indoors where they are forced to eat a grain and soy-rich diet. These chickens might never see an insect in their life.
The reason farmers opt for soy is rather simple: it’s pound for pound the best source of protein there is—and it’s cheap. The problem, however, is that this over-reliance on soy is leading to mass deforestation as forests are cleared out to make room for the crop.
In the UK, one farm is showing chicken farmers everywhere a better, more sustainable alternative to soy: insects! Rich in protein and essential micronutrients, insects require less space, produce fewer greenhouse gas emissions, and have a high feed conversion rate. Plus, insects are typically a perfectly normal part of a chicken’s diet.
Since March, a farm in Cambridgeshire has started feeding maggots to its 28,000 chickens. To source all these maggots, the farm is playing host to the UK’s first AI-powered insect mini-farm, which operates in a shipping container unit and grows larvae using food waste. As reported in The Guardian, batches of maggot eggs arrive every few days, and the insects are reared in an automated setup that tracks their growth using thermal cameras and AI. All the farmers need to do is keep the unit supplied with energy and waste feedstocks.
The production of this mini insect farm is pretty incredible. Apparently, the larvae grow 5,000 times their body mass in less than a couple of weeks. After two weeks they are ready to be fed to the hens, and a new cycle of eggs is delivered to the farm to maintain a continuous supply of insects. So, what are the results of giving chickens a maggot-based diet?
According to the farmers, it has been unequivocally positive as the chickens actually display excitement when the maggots arrive. They’ve worked out the time of the day when blue containers of maggots, rather than ready-made feed arrives, and start bustling when they see them coming. It’s also encouraged the hens to carry out natural foraging behaviors, says farmer Charles Mear, who has noticed that as a result, they seem less inclined to peck other birds.
“Even after the maggots are all gone they carry on looking and stay active doing little scratch dances, which is really healthy for them.”
Beyond the visual cues of happiness, feeding live insects has also been found to have a positive effect on the birds’ immune systems: the farmers haven’t had to use antibiotics on their farm, showing how maggots offer the potential to reduce antibiotic use across the poultry sector. Who would have thought we could appreciate maggots?