Chicken welfare is influenced more by housing conditions than by stocking density.
Dawkins MS., Donnelly CA., Jones TA.
Intensive broiler (meat) chicken production now exceeds 800 million birds each year in the United Kingdom and 2 x 10(10) birds worldwide, but it attracts accusations of poor welfare. The European Union is currently adopting standards for broilers aimed at a chief welfare concern--namely, overcrowding--by limiting maximum 'stocking density' (bird weight per unit area). It is not clear, however, whether this will genuinely improve bird welfare because evidence is contradictory. Here we report on broiler welfare in relation to the European Union proposals through a large-scale study (2.7 million birds) with the unprecedented cooperation of ten major broiler producers in an experimental manipulation of stocking density under a range of commercial conditions. Producer companies stocked birds to five different final densities, but otherwise followed company practice, which we recorded in addition to temperature, humidity, litter and air quality. We assessed welfare through mortality, physiology, behaviour and health, with an emphasis on leg health and walking ability. Our results show that differences among producers in the environment that they provide for chickens have more impact on welfare than has stocking density itself.