Saturday, May 29, 2010

Controlling aggression in hens without de-beaking

Beak trimming or de-beaking of laying hens is still a widespread practice in Australia – even in 'free range' birds. The majority of so-called free range farms are intensive production systems with flocks of many thousands of hens.

The Model Code of Practice for the Welfare of Animals (Domestic Poultry), provides the only national definition of the term 'free range' which is accepted by the big players in the industry. But it states that every effort should be made to avoid beak trimming by selecting birds which have more docile tendencies.

The reality is that intensive free range farms de-beak their birds as a matter of course because they want to run large numbers and they chose to use high producing hens developed for the cage industry. These hens have been selectively cross bred for only two traits – maximum egg production and minimum feed intake. This often means they are aggressive and cannibalistic.

It is important to select a strain of bird that is less aggressive, and to get breeders to breed birds that are more docile. Research has shown that breeding for low aggression can have a marked effect in only 4 or 5 generations. Dr Mike Gentle, a U.S. poultry researcher, has concluded:
" In the long term, beak trimming should be phased out and undesirable behaviour controlled by environmental means and by increased effort being devoted to the genetic selection of commercial stocks which do not engage in damaging pecking, either in cages or when floor-housed in large flocks. "

Hens need to be in groups small enough to be able to recognise each other. At Freeranger Eggs we run maximum flock sizes of 250 birds.

Hens must be able to express their natural behaviour, including the strong urge to peck. They must have material in which to forage and dust bathe.

Good husbandry is a major factor in reducing aggression, especially preventing conditions that cause frustration in hens. They also need an adequate and well-balanced diet, easy access to food and water, enough space, and minimum disturbance.

Customers should push egg farmers into making greater efforts to control aggression without de-beaking. From our experience, talking with consumers at Farmers' Markets, the public does not believe that 'free range' production should involve the de-beaking of birds. Aggression and cannibalism is a behavioural problem which is easily solved by effective poultry management and selection of birds.

In Victoria, the easiest way to ensure that you are buying genuine free range eggs from hens who have not been de-beaked is to only buy from a farm accredited by the Free Range Farmers Association. All member farms carry the logo on their cartons. If your egg producer doesn't have the FRFA logo its probably not because he or she doesn't want to  -  they can't get it because they don't meet the standards.

We are hoping that when a review is undertaken of the Model Code of Practice for the Welfare of Animals (Domestic Poultry) and of labelling laws that a real definition of the term 'free range' will emerge. Many buyers of 'free range' eggs are currently being mislead by cartons which depict birds on lush green pasture and show hens with full beaks. It may be that two definitions of free range are needed - traditional free range such as practiced by Freeranger Eggs and other members of the Free Range Farmers Association and intensive free range which is the large-scale factory farming approach.

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