Laying Hens: Feather Pecking & Cannibalism (PB10596)

Factors Likely to Increase the Risk of Feather Pecking

This section considers factors that, when combined, will increase the risk of feather pecking. Laying hens are usually able to cope with individual stressors when they occur ‘one at a time’. A feeder breakdown, for example, would not normally be expected to precipitate a bout of feather pecking. A feeder breakdown during an acute infestation of red mite coupled with the house lights being left on full, could however ‘tip the balance’ and trigger a sudden and serious bout of injurious pecking. In most cases of serious pecking, it seems to be the accumulation of a number of stressors that leads to problems, and once started – they can be extremely difficult to stop.

The most prolific trigger appears to be any unplanned deviations from the normal practice and routine – in other words, ”change”. Where ‘changes’ do have to be made, they need to be planned and managed. Changes when moving pullets from the rearing farm to the laying farm

The time when pullets are moved from the rearing accommodation to the laying farm is a critical time for keeping stress levels in birds to an absolute minimum. One of the main changes that pullets can encounter at this time is the deprivation of litter and access to the full house space when they are initially penned on raised platforms during the first few days in the laying house. The aim of this practice is to ensure that they successfully find the food and water and learn where they should be perching at night-time.

Managed carefully over a short period (i.e. a few days), the birds seem to cope fairly well with this widely-used practice. Where the birds are confined over a prolonged period however – e.g. where producers are training the birds to use the nest boxes, this is likely to be particularly stressful and could encourage feather pecking, in addition to possibly contravening the Egg Marketing Regulations.

Changes in feed

Irrespective of the reason for a change of feed, it has been found that sudden, unexpected changes in feed composition can often trigger feather pecking. Feed formulation could be changed for a number of reasons. For example, the composition may be changed at the request of the producer or his adviser in order to rectify production or husbandry problems. It could be changed by the feed compounder in response to price pressures, or it could simply be due to a change in feed supplier. Despite this potential ‘risk’, it is still usually advisable to use a phase feeding regime, to match the birds changing nutritional requirements through lay to the nutrient density of the feed. Allowing the egg size (egg mass output) to get too high (for example) is stressful to the hens, and can be controlled by adjusting their nutrient intake. Injurious feather pecking, increased mortality and cannibalism may occur if this change is not made.

There can be merit in providing a period of overlap between feeds where new and old feed formulations are both in the feed bin at the same time. This allows for some blending of rations to occur and makes for a more gradual (and perhaps less stressful) changeover to take place.

Changes in the environment

External changes in the bird’s immediate environment are also a major factor in terms of risk of injurious pecking developing. Some of these can be predicted (and therefore managed) whilst others, such things as changes in the weather and sudden, unexpected noises such as low flying aircraft and hot air balloons are much less predictable and the producer can do little or nothing to influence them. Procedures do exist for producers being able to register their farm as being a ‘no-fly’ zone with the Ministry of Defence (and the local ballooning club), and this may help to reduce this particular risk.

There are a number of potential risk factors that the producer can help to ameliorate. Excessive numbers of visitors to the unit can increase the birds’ stress levels and trigger feather pecking. Visitor numbers and frequency of visits should therefore be kept to a minimum. However, regular inspection of the flock by their stockman is essential.

Equipment malfunctions and breakdowns, (leading to food or water absence for example), are also a problem which can be guarded against, to a degree, by a regime of planned maintenance.

Predators, primarily foxes, but also dogs, mink and badgers can cause panic in a flock leading to outbreaks of feather pecking. The siting of the unit can influence the likelihood of such problems, with thick cover adjacent to the range area encouraging foxes. Flexible electrified fencing powered by a mains transformer, will generally provide satisfactory levels of protection against most predators, and requires less attention than a battery powered unit.

Wild birds, even small ones such as finches, must be kept out of the laying house as they can induce fear reactions, such as feather pecking, in the hens.

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