Free-range birds such as organic broilers may ingest soil and plants during exploration. The estimation of such intakes is of great interest to quantify possible nutritional supplies and also to evaluate the risk of exposure to parasites or to environmental contaminants. Marker-based techniques are now available and would allow to quantify plant and, especially, soil intake in free-range birds, and this quantification was the aim of this study. Methodologically, the proportion of plants in diet intake was determined first using a method based on n-alkanes. Subsequently, the fraction of soil in the total intake was estimated with a second marker, acid-insoluble ash. This approach was carried out to estimate ingested amounts of plants and soil for five successive flocks of organic broilers, exploring grass-covered yards or those under trees, at two time points for each yard: 51 and 64 days of age. Each factor combination (yard type×period=flock number×age) was repeated on two different yards of 750 broilers each.
The birds’ plant intake varied widely, especially on grass-covered yards. The proportion of plant intake was significantly higher on grass-covered plots than under trees and was also affected, but to a lesser extent, by age or flock number. The ingestion of plants would generally not exceed 11 g of DM daily, except two extreme outliers of nearly 30 g. The daily plant intake under trees tended to be lower and never exceeded 7 g of DM. The amount of ingested plants increased significantly for spring flocks. It increased slightly but significantly with age. The proportion of ingested soil was significantly higher under trees than on grass-covered yards. Dry soil intake was generally low with not more than 3 g per day. Only in adverse conditions – that is, older birds exploring yards under trees in winter – soil intake reached the extreme value of nearly 5 g. Broilers on yards under trees ingested significantly more soil than on grass-covered yards with least square means of, respectively, 2.1 and 1.1 g dry soil per day. These quantifications would allow us to evaluate the impact of plant and soil intake in the management of free-range broilers, especially for the management in organic farming systems. Nevertheless, under the two rearing conditions tested in the current study, the quite low proportions of soil intakes would represent a low risk for the safety of the produced food, unless the birds explore yards on heavily contaminated soil.