Injurious pecking (IP) is a ubiquitous problem on loose-housed laying hen farms and is a welfare and economic concern, associated with increased mortality and decreased productivity. The term ‘injurious pecking’ encompasses a range of behaviours including gentle and severe feather pecking cannibalistic pecking and vent pecking. Beak trimming is commonly used in commercial systems to limit the damage caused by IP and, although this is considered a mutilation in the EU, member states are allowed to authorise beak trimming where feather pecking and cannibalism may pose a problem; however, IP is still evident in beak-trimmed flocks. Consequently, there is a pressing need to identify other practical means of controlling IP on farms. The large number of risk factors associated with IP, and a lack of understanding of the relationship between the different forms of IP has made it difficult to provide concise evidence-based advice on how best to reduce IP in practice. Furthermore, advice is often generic and difficult to relate to practical issues on farm. A study recently published in Veterinary Record aimed to overcome these limitations.1
Sarah Lambton and colleagues, from the University of Bristol, carried out a systematic review of existing scientific and commercial literature to ensure known risk factors associated with IP were comprehensively addressed. The risk factors identified were then discussed with stakeholders (including industry representatives, Defra, RSPCA, retailers, poultry veterinarians and external academics) and, from their knowledge and expertise, 46 practical management strategies were developed to aid the prevention, reduction or delay in onset of IP.
IP was measured in 100 flocks of loose-housed laying hens from 63 farms; 53 treatment flocks employed a bespoke management package comprised of these management strategies and their subsequent IP compared with control flocks which were managed as usual. It was notable that both treatment flocks and control flocks may have been employing a variety of the listed management strategies before the intervention of the team at the University of Bristol. Scoring of plumage damage and observations of gentle and severe feather pecking, vent pecking and cannibalistic pecking were completed and management strategy use was recorded at 20, 30 and 40 weeks of age.
In general, gentle feather pecking was the most frequently observed behaviour, followed by severe feather pecking, vent and cannibalistic pecking and most forms of IP increased in both prevalence and rate with age. Plumage damage score, rates of gentle and severe feather pecking, likelihood of vent pecking and per cent mortality at 40 weeks all decreased the more management strategies were employed, regardless of whether it was a treatment flock or control flock. However, when compared with control flocks, treatment flocks employed more management strategies, had lower plumage damage and severe feather pecking. The successful knowledge transfer and uptake in treatment flocks, the authors say, are the result of various approaches adopted by the researchers, such as one-to-one discussions.
The authors conclude that the reduced levels of plumage damage and severe feather pecking in flocks through employing an IP management package show that such a package can be successfully used to reduce the level of IP in commercial laying hen flocks, with potential beneficial effects on both welfare and productivity. Sarah Lambton added, ‘It is clear that the more management strategies combating IP that are employed, the lower the levels of IP, regardless of whether they were employed as part of a formal management package.’
Based on this work, a FeatherWel Guide to improving feather cover, incorporating the 46 management strategies, is being rolled out to hen producers, where it appears to have been well received. 2
1. Lambton, S. L., Nicol, C. J., Friel, M., Main, D. C. J., McKinstry, J. L., Sherwin, C. M., Walton, J & Weeks, C. A. (2013) A bespoke management package can reduce levels of injurious pecking in loose-housed laying hen flocks. Veterinary Record doi:10.1136/vr.101067