Friday, August 16, 2013

Controlling aggression in chickens without beak trimming

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

Even the Model Code of Practice for the Welfare of Animals - Domestic Poultry, which provides the only widely accepted national definition of the term 'free range' states that every effort should be made to avoid beak trimming by selecting birds which have more docile tendencies.

But the reality is that intensive free range farms beak trim 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. researcher in this area, 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. "

In our view, hens should be kept in groups small enough to be able to recognise each other. At Freeranger Eggs we run maximum flock sizes of 250 – 300 birds.

Hens need 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 must also have an adequate and well-balanced diet, easy access to food and water, enough space, and minimum disturbance.

Egg farmers need to make a much greater effort to control aggression without beak trimming. From our experience talking with consumers at Farmers' Markets, they do not believe that 'free range' production should involve the beak trimming of birds. Aggression and cannibalism is a behavioural problem which is easily solved by effective poultry management and selection of birds.

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