Influence of rearing and lay risk factors on propensity for feather damage in laying hens.
Drake KA., Donnelly CA., Dawkins MS.
1. Feather pecking is one of the major problems facing the egg industry in non-cage systems and is set to become even more of an issue with the European Union ban on the keeping of laying hens in barren battery cages which comes into force in 2012 and the prospect of a ban on beak-trimming. Reducing feather pecking without resorting to beak treatment is an important goal for the poultry industry. 2. We report here a longitudinal study that included over 335,500 birds from 22 free range and organic laying farms. Accelerated failure time models and proportional hazards models were used to examine the effects of a wide range of factors (management, environment and bird) on development of substantial feather damage in lay. Particular emphasis was placed on risk factors during rear and on practices that could feasibly be changed or implemented. 3. The age at which a flock exhibits substantial feather damage could be predicted both by factors in the environment and by early symptoms in the birds themselves. Factors that were associated with earlier onset of severe feather damage included the presence of chain feeders, raised levels of carbon dioxide and ammonia, higher sound and light levels, particularly in younger birds. Increased feather damage (even very slight) in birds at 17-20 weeks of age was also highly predictive of the time of onset of severe feather damage during lay. Increased feed intake also indicated that a flock was at risk of early severe feather damage. 4. Birds that stayed on the same farm for rearing and lay showed later onset of serious feather damage than those that experienced a change in farm from rearing to lay. However, an increased number of changes between rearing and lay (feeder type, drinker type, light intensity etc) was not associated with earlier onset of serious feather damage. Further research needs to be done on the role of the transition from rearing to lay as a risk factor for FP in lay.