Laying Hens: Feather Pecking & Cannibalism (PB10596)

Factors Likely to Decrease the Risk of Feather Pecking

This section reviews a number of key factors that are associated with a reduced risk of injurious pecking.

Matching housing conditions in rear and in lay Field experience suggests that one of the most important factors in reducing the risk of injurious pecking is the need to ensure that the housing conditions in the rearing phase are as closely matched as possible to those that the bird will experience in the laying house.

It is good practice, for example, for the drinker system that is used during rearing to be the same as on the laying unit. Also, having the same or similar feeding systems and times of feeding in both the rearing and laying houses helps reduce the stress of transition between the two stages.

The aim should be for a “seamless transition” from rearing to laying accommodation. To achieve this, there is a fundamental requirement for good communication between the laying farm and the pullet rearer to ensure that the birds are reared to the appropriate standards. It is also good practice for the stock keeper to inspect the pullets at least once before delivery to discuss the progress of the pullets with the rearer and to check that the agreed rearing programme is being followed.

Good quality pullets

Correctly reared, healthy, well-feathered pullets are not only essential prerequisites for successful egg production, but they also seem to be vital in ensuring that the risks of feather pecking problems are minimised.

Underweight and uneven pullets will be less likely to adapt to life in the laying house and tend to be more susceptible to stress, which in turn may increase the risk of injurious feather pecking.

Requirements for pullets destined for free range systems should include:

  • Floor reared with access to perches (and possibly perforated floors) from an early age (for example, from 10 days of age at the latest).
  • A big-framed pullet with a good appetite. Breeders target weight should be closely followed, especially in the 5 to 10 week period.
  • A comprehensive vaccination programme, devised by the vet, to match the laying site disease profile as far as possible.
  • Wormed and resistant to coccidiosis. (The producer should be aware of dosage levels given, and at what age the inclusion of coccidiostat ceased).
  • Reared to an agreed lighting programme in light-proof houses, where the birds’ day length cannot increase unintentionally.

Bird temperament

There seems to be a strong association between bird temperament and the likelihood of injurious pecking. Birds with a calm yet ‘robust’ temperament tend to be better able to cope with changes in the environment and errors of management, and less likely therefore to indulge in damaging feather pecking.

The way that the birds are managed during the rearing phase is widely felt to play an essential part in achieving a pullet with this ‘robust’ temperament, and pullet suppliers often adopt a variety of approaches to try and develop these positive behavioural traits. This can range from getting the pullets used to loud noises, through to extended flock walking to reduce the pullets fearfulness of people.

Maximising the use of the range area

The incidence of injurious feather pecking tends to be reduced where birds make good use of the ranging areas available. It should therefore be a priority to encourage the birds’ natural desire to roam. Birds find open spaces a threat however (increased risk of being spotted by predators), which is why a barren area is much less attractive to the birds than one which provides some form of cover in the form of natural or artificial shelters. Shelters such as trees and bushes help in encouraging the hens to use the range area. Trees and bushes provide dappled shade and encourage the birds to actively explore their environment, rather than pecking other hens. Additionally, if a high proportion of birds use the range, the average stocking density in the house is reduced for a longer period of time, which decreases the risk of pecking problems arising. Having water available outside the poultry house will also help to encourage the birds to range and spend longer outside. Care should be taken when providing external water supplies to avoid contamination from wild bird droppings.

Hens should be let out onto the range area as early as possible in the day. There is no need to keep them in the house once they have learnt to lay in the nest boxes.

Where permanent shelters are not appropriate, (for example on tenanted land), temporary, man-made shelters can be erected by driving a number of posts into the ground and stretching suitable material or netting over them. Where the ground underneath is liable to be poached, moveable shelters can be used. It is important to provide covered areas over the whole of the range, not just close to the shed.

Encouragement should be given to the birds to maximise the whole of the range area and participate in dust bathing and scratching. Additionally,  hens encouraged to roam minimise the pressure that would otherwise be exerted on the areas immediately around the house.

 

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