24 June 2017 | Online since 2003

18 February 2013

Reducing feather pecking: An objective assessment


A team at Bristol University, lead by Prof. Christine Nicol are busily helping free range egg producers. Their aim is ‘to reduce the risk of feather pecking occurring in laying hens’ and to offer other welfare benefits.

Ex-ADAS Senior Poultry Consultant Trevor Bray discusses the Bristol publication:

Their input is via farm visits and helpful assessments, coupled with a very useful and balanced Guide that they have published and passed to co-operating producers. I now have a copy of the Guide, which has been updated in 2013 and I offer the following comments on it.

I hope that they may lead to further discussions on the worrying topic of feather pecking, cannibalism and the proposed ban on beak trimming.

I made it quite clear that I am sceptical and worried by what I feel is the ill advised aim of banning beak trimming in 2016.

I am afraid that nothing that I have read in the Bristol publication has altered this firmly help belief that, on occasions, something will trigger off a behavioural change in a flock that may lead to de-feathered hens and to carnage.

Firstly, I am interested in the comparison between Injurious Pecking and Aggressive Pecking. One would have thought that when a hen pecks another hard enough to cause bleeding, the ensuing cannibalism that occurs, for example via vent pecking, is aggressive. It isn’t. It is just ‘a redirected foraging behaviour’.

So the sort of feather pecking and cannibalism that one sees on free range farms are not thought to be an aggressive behavioural trait. Aggressive encounters between hens are when they peck exclusively at the top of the head or the comb, whilst Injurious Pecking is an ‘umbrella’ term that includes gentle and severe feather pecking, vent pecking and cannibalistic pecking.

Therefore this article will from now on concentrate only on Injurious Pecking as the trait under discussion. Of the types of pecking being discussed here, Severe Pecking is likely to be the most important, because the hens can become seriously de-feathered and it often leads to cannibalism, vent pecking and death.

Severe pecking is usually directed at the base of the tail in the area around the preen gland, the back, the tail and the wings. Various surveys and observations suggest that in free range flocks, feather pecking occurs in between 57 and 86% of them and in these flocks about 99% of the hens are affected.

This means that about 5 to 6 million free range hens in the UK have been feather pecked and possibly a quarter of a million hens will have died because of Injurious Pecking (redirected foraging behaviour).

It is no wonder therefore that Bristol aim to help to reduce the problem and it shows very clearly just how enthusiastically free range egg producers should liaise and co-operate with Bristol. It also shows how risky the aim of banning beak trimming is.

Inevitably, non-beak trimmed hens would create a more serious welfare problem than beak trimmed ones when something has triggered off this behavioural trait.

To recap – Injurious Pecking can include gentle and severe feather pecking, vent pecking and cannibalistic pecking. It occurs in the majority of free range flocks, in various degrees of severity.

It leads to welfare concerns; stress and an associated increase in the risk of diseases; decreased productivity and an increased feed consumption. Bristol stress the need for closely monitoring the behaviour of each flock. Having located a problem, the Guide takes us through the proactive management factors that can help and hopefully lead to less serious Injurious Pecking.

They recommend adopting a proactive approach by looking for feather damage around the base of the back and on the tail whilst listening for the characteristic ‘squawks’ from the victims of aggression. So do please consider adopting as many as possible of the strategies that Bristol University promote in the Guide:

I am now going to comment on the final part of the Bristol publication first, because it deals with the Pullets’ Rearing Period. I feel that it` seems logical in this article to deal with the rearing period first before moving on to the laying period.

My reason for doing this is because the behaviour of the hens during the laying period can be directly correlated to what has happened to them in the rearing period.

• It is well known that the behaviour of hens can be imprinted on them and this can definitely be as early as in the rearing period. A poorly reared and managed flock of pullets are unlikely to perform well during the laying period. Bristol recognise this and offer the following advice:

• The flock must have an even liveweight i.e. evenness, with at least 80% being within ± 10 % of the mean liveweight is crucial in decreasing the possibility of Injurious Pecking.

• The environment in the rearing house can influence the prevention of Injurious Pecking. Lighting evenness and intensity must be optimal and a dawn/dusk dimmer can be helpful. Good climate control in a draught free environment with low ammonia concentrations is necessary, (aim for 15 ppm maximum). Ammonia can not only make the pullets more susceptible to disease but it also reduces feed consumption and therefore the liveweight gain.

• Litter quality is vitally important because pullets need to learn ground pecking and foraging behaviours. If you observe the behaviour of a broody mother hen with her baby chicks, she scratches the ground and clucks in such a way that the chicks dive in to forage for what is on offer. In a rearing house, pullets are deprived of this intimate learning process and it has to be induced by good and watchful management on the rearing farm. Using paper for the feed in the early stages of the rearing period; straw bales; appropriate litter materials; avoiding damp areas of litter, are all important management factors.

• Unfortunately, one of the Bristol recommendations is not likely to be practicable on most rearing farms. They suggest, quite logically, that if pullets have had experience of using a range area, they are more likely to use the range area during the laying period. During the rearing period too, the risks of Injurious Pecking are decreased by the pullets being more active and therefore where access to the range is impracticable, a veranda could be constructively become a ‘half way house’.

• Use nipple drinkers and ideally, a chain feeder. These are likely to what the pullets will use when having been transferred to the laying house. However, some pullets and hens may prefer Bell Drinkers. Therefore it is potentially helpful to supply them in both the rearing and laying houses. Quill drinkers can help in making a smooth transition to the laying house, if bell drinkers are used in the rearing house.

• A 3D environment is essential i.e. perches at different levels and a slatted area. At the end of the rearing period the slats; drinkers; feeders; perches; light intensity; environmental temperature, should all match that of the laying house to which the pullets are to be delivered. Perches should be introduced by the time that the pullets are 4 weeks old. Close liaison between the rearer and the laying farm management is essential.

• Even during the rearing period, Bristol recommend that enrichment objects to peck at are a good idea. Attention to detail by the managers can be helpful, with frequent inspections, variable clothing and routes through the house, whilst avoiding too many stressors.

• If you are a free range egg producer, provided that you rear pullets on an isolated site and with separate managers, Bristol considers that this could be an advantage. On most free range farms, pullets are reared by a contracted rearer and then delivered to the laying farm. Injurious Pecking may be less likely if the stress of this move can be avoided.

• Feed quality, the amino acid balance and when and how to change the feeds are important. Care should be taken when changing the quality of the feed. If possible, the changes should be made gradually.

Bristol agrees with the concept that it can be an advantage to teach the pullets that they should have ‘meals’ (as in breakfast, lunch, tea etc.) with a gap in the middle of the day. This should lead to an increased size of their crops and probably to a better liveweight gain, whilst ensuring that all nutrients in the feed have been ingested each day.

They also seem to be implying that there could be an added formulation problem for the feed compounder! If as they suggest, extra fibre in the pullets’ feed would reduce Injurious Pecking, the feed compounder would have to be careful in ensuring that the correct amino acid concentrations, especially of methionine, and the Metabolisable Energy (ME) of the feed are attained.

This could be an area for collaboration and liaison, because in the past, cereals like oats, which have a higher fibre content than wheat, were fashionable.

For the modern poultry industry however, one can foresee problems of this higher fibre diet separating when being blown into the bulk bin.

Poorer quality vegetable proteins, which would have a higher fibre content, are likely to have a poorer amino acid balance. It is difficult to see how the higher fibre diet of an optimal quality can be attained and successfully managed on the farm, but I can see the logic in the Bristol Guide where they claim that if the fibre in the feed is not high enough, the pullets could eat feathers to compensate for the fibre deficiency in their diet.

I suspect that nutrition and the concept of increasing the fibre content of the feed, whilst still maintaining its quality, is an area for further discussion and liaison. They suggest using a ‘finer grain food’ so that more time is spent in eating, rather than in Injurious Pecking.

However if the feed is too fine it would probably be more unpalatable, so it is wise to discuss the grist with the feed supplier, so as to attain the best compromise between these conflicting requirements.

• Great stress is put on the necessity of rearing pullets with an even liveweight. This should be monitored frequently. Flocks with an uneven liveweight are more likely to indulge in Injurious Pecking.

• I am interested but not surprised that the new version (February 2013) of the Bristol Guide has excluded the section on Dark Brooders. What are they? The concept aims to mimic the environment that would be supplied by a mother hen, but on a commercial scale.

We have all seen the whole house heating of rearing houses and of course, the various forms of radiant heaters or spot heaters, but how many houses are there with ‘Dark Brooders’? In the past, I suspect that these would have been called Canopy Brooders. (My Dad used to use a similar concept in the 1940s).

A platform, with a heating system under it provides the pullets with the option of choosing their optimal temperature, whilst also inducing a cooler temperature away from the brooders. This platform can be raised or lowered to accommodate the pullets’ increasing size and requirements and to provide a safe haven for pullets that are lower in the pecking order. This seems to be a sensible suggestion from the point of view of training and encouraging the hens on the laying farm to use the range shelters.

In addition, I can understand the logic behind the Bristol suggestion that active birds take a peck sometimes at resting birds.

With Dark Brooders, they would be less available, when under the brooder. Unfortunately the concept of Dark Brooders tends to be idealistic rather than practical.

Therefore I think that they were correct in removing the references to Dark Brooders from the new Guide, dated February 2013.

The Guide tends to gloss over the fact that geneticists have their part to play in minimising the risks of Injurious Pecking.

It is a fact that feather pecking has a heritable component. The geneticists try to select strains that have a low inclination to feather peck. However they have also to incorporate many other heritable factors into their selections, such a flightiness (more prone to feather peck) or docility (maybe docile enough to lay floor eggs and get pecked in the process?).

I appreciate that the Guide is primarily aimed at producers of pullets and eggs and genetics do not form part of the remit for Bristol.

Nevertheless, on some farms, there could be a risk of pecking that how ever well intentioned; the advice from Bristol could not overcome. The link and potential risks between Injurious Pecking and genetics should not be ignored.

Are we so sure that all geneticists will not inadvertently include a trait that could cause an increase in Injurious Pecking at some time in the future? It would be a brave person who says “yes” to that question!

Bristol University’s Guide offers a great deal of pertinent advice to Free Range Egg Producers. Many of the suggestions made for the rearing phase are also applicable to the laying phase.

• They wisely stress the vital need for liaison between the rearing and laying farms and the importance of the evenness of the hens’ liveweights. Their advice on the timing of the onset of lay raises a problem for egg producers however.

If as they claim, Injurious Pecking could be increased if the onset of lay is before 19/20 weeks, the larger eggs that would result from delaying the trigger into lay would not be what the market requires. Indeed, the larger eggs towards the end of lay could create problems of shell quality, egg eating and possibly of prolapse.

It will be necessary for the industry to disregard their advice, in my view, and learn how to manage hens that reach peak production at about 22/23 weeks.

If this does indeed create an increased risk of Injurious Pecking, it endorses the folly of aiming to ban beak trimming. The industry has no alternative other than to produce what the customer wants.

• Allow the hens access to the range area as soon as is practicable and allow them onto the litter area virtually straight away after receiving them, without the stress of shutting them up on the slats for a few days. They need to be able to see the range easily and it should have shelters and also ideally, have trees on it. Other animals can share the range with the hens and a patch of maize might help too. These actions should induce foraging behaviour and reduce Injurious Pecking.

• Some people feel that allowing the hens to have access to the litter soon after delivery of them could lead to an increased risk of floor eggs. The Bristol view on this is that this is not necessarily true.

The compromise would be to have a low level of litter to begin with i.e. just enough to create a foraging behaviour. It should be made deeper once the hens have decided to successfully use the nest boxes in preference to the litter. In addition, when the pullets have been recently delivered to the laying site, the management must ensure that the hens are lifted from the litter onto the slats at night-time, as and when necessary.

• The range area should be actively managed. Mesh on frames or slats or stones adjacent to the popholes are helpful in keeping the internal litter friable. Drainage must be good. The grass should be cut regularly, because long grass can increase the risks of an impacted crop and it could encourage eggs to be laid on the range area rather than in the nest boxes.

• Good litter quality is vital, because capped litter causes frustration because of the inability to dust bathe and forage. If necessary, capped litter should be replaced. Leaving straw bales and topping up the litter should also be done. This foraging requirement can be encouraged by also using enhancements to pecking e.g. rope; alfalfa blocks on the slats; dustbaths in old tyres etc.

• Using a mash as feed, rather than pellets, increases the time that the hens are eating. Quite correctly, the Guide warns of the dangers of changing the feeds, especially if there is a drop in the amino acid content. Changes are usually necessary however, so it is helpful to make them as slowly as possible by mixing the feeds. Here too the importance of extra dietary fibre is stressed. This can be as a scratch feed of whole oats or other cereals etc.. At all times, the amino acid balance and Metabolisable Energy must be optimal.

• Beware of perches that present the vents of other hens at a tempting height for taking a peck at them. Bristol recommend that any perches that are used by the hens should be more than 40 cm above what is below.

• The importance of excellent health and hygiene are stressed. Be vigilant in the management of worm control and red mite elimination. Obviously thorough cleaning and disinfection at turnaround time are necessary, as are good hygiene practices during the laying period. A single age site can enhance good health. Boot dips and clothing for specific houses are necessary.

• Fearfulness and feather pecking often go hand in hand. Therefore practices such as using different clothes each day; providing music and speech via a radio; avoiding sharp contrasts in the environment etc. can help to make a calmer flock.

• The design and layout of the house is important for the behaviour and social dynamics of the hens. It should be the aim to reduce competition between the hens, whether in or out of the house. Wide ramps; strategically placed perches; smooth slats; correctly managed and designed nests and the lights in them; wide popholes; the use of added verandas, are all necessary for reducing Injurious Pecking.

I agree with the observations about verandas made by Bristol in the Guide.

They say, “Verandas have so many advantages, it is surprising that they are not more universally used”. They point out that their construction can be simple and inexpensive.

To have a half way house between the main house and the range can get the hens used to brighter conditions and fresher air. It reduces the risk of scares by predators and at the same time protects the litter in the main house from rain and dirty feet etc.. Verandas provide a good location for supplementary foraging materials and dust baths and ease congestion in the house.

They emphasise though that verandas should be an addition to the house design and not be treated as part of the total floor space.

I applaud this Guide. It is attractively laid out and well written. It is in my view, logical, sensible and full of good advice on the management of both pullets and free range hens.

I can understand that it could indeed be helpful to both pullet rearers and free range egg producers.

Much of the advice is already being used by the best rearers and free range egg producers and the Guide can serve as a good management aid for them and as a well thought out and comprehensive guide for the less experienced also.

Most certainly, both pullet rearers and free range egg producers should read, digest and implement the advice and observations given in the Guide.

The basic question remains however - If rearers and egg producers follow the advice given in the Guide, will the end result be that Injurious Pecking will be outlawed on both rearing and laying farms? The answer to that question still remains a resounding NO.

It seems to be an admission of future problems by those that perceive a mortality level of free range hens of 9% as being acceptable. It is NOT. Anything above about 5% should raise an eyebrow and lead to the management seeking the reasons for not attaining that realistic target. Indeed, the inference of the possible acceptance of a 9% mortality clearly shows that, despite producers having adopted the excellent advice in the Guide, there remains a risk of Injurious Pecking and cannibalism.

So in 2016, despite the laudable efforts of Bristol University, will it be safe to outlaw beak trimming? No, it most definitely will not. The industry must say so loud and clear to those who are blinkered, idealistic, unrealistic and misguided enough to think that it will. Get yourselves into the ‘real world’ DEFRA and welfarists. The idiocy of aiming to ban beak trimming must be halted.

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