Addressing the Challenges of Alternative Housing Systems for Poultry

Welfare concerns about conventional intensive poultry systems stimulated the development of the new so-called 'alternative' housing that is becoming more popular in developed countries. It is clear that these new systems do not automatically deliver better bird welfare but present producers with new challenges, writes Jackie Linden, senior editor of ThePoultrySite.
calendar icon 2 November 2011
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The symposium 'Alternative Systems for Poultry – Health, Welfare and Productivity', organised by the UK Branch of the WPSA and held in the Scottish city of Glasgow in September, attracted participation from more than 120 delegates from 26 countries, such is the current interest in this topic across the world and the importance placed on research in this area.

Development of Furnished Cages for Laying Hens

"Directive 99/74/EC has made the biggest impact on animal welfare in the EU in the shortest time"

"Directive 99/74/EC has made the biggest impact on animal welfare in the EU in the shortest time," said Arnold Elson of ADAS Gleadthorpe in the UK in the introduction to his presentation, which was prepared with Dr Ragnar Tauson of the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences.

The majority of hens have been – or will be – moved to furnished cages (FC) as a result of the Directive, which comes into effect on 1 January 2012, he said, increasing production costs. In fact, FC were conceived more than 30 years ago when welfare deficiencies of barren conventional cages were realised. Their use was intended to enhance hens' behavioural repertoire and welfare without the disadvantages of non-cage and extensive housing.

Since then, their design has been refined and improved, resulting in much improved performance and hen welfare. With 750 square centimetres per bird, FCs offer hens more space than conventional cages, as well as perches, nest boxes and a scratching area, in addition to the feed trough and drinkers.

Group size has been an important consideration, said Mr Elson, especially in relation to variation in damaging pecking in differing genotypes, with or without beak treatment. Regulations on beak trimming vary from country to country and have affected cage design, group size and management.

The trend has been to move from small group FCs – used mainly in Scandinavia – to larger group medium and large FCs subsequently developed in other countries, with the majority of birds in groups of up to 60 birds. FCs are have been estimated to increase production costs by about eight per cent over conventional battery cages.

The group sizes have generally performed well under good management, said Mr Elson. Interventions such as beak trimming and controlled light intensity are most often applied in FCLs and to brown genotypes.

Large-scale studies, in which performance and welfare have been compared across all currently available systems, enable us to conclude that they are at least as good in FCs as in any other system and probably superior.

Council Directive 19999/74/EC, which requires the demise of all conventional cages in the EU by January 2012, has accelerated the move into FCs and it is clear that the majority of laying hens in Europe will be housed in them for the foreseeable future, with the aim of enhancing laying hen welfare.

FCs have potential for further development as research reveals more information of optimum group/cage sizes, the provision of litter, the elimination of red mites and ways to reduce feather pecking and cannibalism, concluded Mr Elson.

Comparison of Production, Health and Welfare of Hens in Cages and in Alternative Systems

"The right birds for the right systems"

Bas Rodenburg of Wageningen University in the Netherlands made the focus of his paper a comparison of the performance, welfare, health and hygiene of laying hens in different types of non-cage systems, focusing on barn, free-range and organic systems. In a paper written with Drs K. De Reu and F.A.M. Tuyttens of the Belgian Institute for Agricultural and Fisheries Research, he contrasted non-cage systems with each other and with cage systems. He concluded that large differences have been identified, both between and within systems.

Moving from conventional cages to furnished cages, barn, free-range and organic systems results in increasing environmental complexity, he said, which is positive for some aspects of hen welfare but also increasing risks for performance, health and hygiene, which may be negative for other aspects of hen welfare.

For the improvement of hen welfare in non-cage systems and furnished cages, Dr Rodenburg recommends that the focus should be on creating a better match between the animals and their environment. Good examples are the development of new housing designs, such as the Rondeel and Plantage, which combine the benefits of non-cage systems with improved performance, health and hygiene status.

He concluded that further, promising approaches in animal breeding and optimised rearing environments will yield major improvements in the welfare of laying hens in non-cage systems and furnished cages.

"The right birds for the right systems" is key, Dr Rodenburg said in summing-up.

Housing and Management of Broiler Breeders and Turkey Breeders

"The restricted feeding regime during rearing is generally seen as one of the major welfare issues in broiler breeders"
Dr Ingrid de Jong

Housing and management of broiler breeders and turkey breeders in Europe were described by Dr Ingrid de Jong of Wageningen University for broiler breeders and turkey breeders were covered by Tim Burnside of Aviagen Turkeys, standing in for his colleague, Dr Magnus Swalander.

The majority of broiler breeders in Europe are the standard, fast-growing genotype but 18 to 20 per cent of the birds are dwarf parental females that produce standard and alternative (medium- or slow-growing) broilers, said Dr de Jong.

Broiler breeder housing systems are very similar: birds are generally kept in climate-controlled houses with litter floor during the rearing period and partially slatted floors during the production period. There is a low percentage of birds in cages and alternative systems are not used. Males and females are reared separately until 18 to 21 weeks of age and then transferred to he production farm where they are housed together until 60 to 65 weeks of age.

The restricted feeding regime during rearing is generally seen as one of the major welfare issues in broiler breeders as it leads to chronic hunger and frustration in feeding motivation. Aggressive behaviour of the males towards the females at mating was also mentioned by Dr de Jong as a concern, which can be partly alleviated by lower stocking density.

The majority – more than 95 per cent – of turkey breeders in Europe are of either heavy or heavy-medium genotype with white plumage, explained Dr Burnside. The remainder of the turkey market consists of small strain white or coloured birds for whole bird seasonal production. Both conventional large-strain turkeys and small strain traditional turkeys are used for outdoor/alternative production systems.

Rearing of breeding turkeys is floor-based on deep litter and predominantly in environmentally controlled housing. Males and females are reared separately until 29 weeks of age and then transferred to the laying facility. Male parent stock id selected at 16 to 18 weeks of age, paying attention to health, fitness, plumage and conformation.

Laying facilities are either open-sided houses or controlled-environment houses for breeding females and typically environment-controlled housing for breeder males. Breeding turkeys are kept in production until 56 to 60 weeks of age, i.e. 24 to 38 weeks of production. Quantitative feeding restriction is applied to breeder males from selection to the end of production to maximise fitness and production. Breeder females are fed unrestricted throughout rearing but a lower protein diet to avoid the hens becoming fat. Injurious pecking is generally seen as the mot important welfare issue in flocks where beak trimming is not applied.

"Welfare is a key priority for breeders and the industry," concluded Dr Burnside.

Housing and Management of Layer Breeders in During Rearing and Production

"Floor eggs need to be collected regularly – several times a day, if necessary"

Housing and management of layer breeders need to be right, otherwise farmers are unable to take advantage of the genetic potential and high economic value of the hens, said Dr Hans-Heinrich Thiele of Lohmann Tierzucht in Cuxhaven, Germany.

He explained that a good start is secured by optimal brooding conditions, high feed quality and appropriate management in the early life of chicks.

The development of adequate eating capacity during the later rearing period and a fine-tuned light stimulation were factors that he identified as important for a good start in the production phase.

Dr Thiele stressed that the birds must be adjusted to the different housing systems for layer breeders; they need to be trained to be able to access easily the feed, water and nest boxes provided, and the correct vaccination schedule will prepare the birds for the different disease challenges they face in the production environment.

Once in production, nutrient requirements can be met by a phase feeding programme. Good hatching egg quality can be achieved by avoiding floor eggs and appropriate egg handling.

Dr Thiele offered a number of tips to prevent floor eggs, including ensuring easy access to all the nests without dark corners or draughts. Some lighting in the nests may help, he suggested, as does water provided near the boxes and barriers to prevent more dominant birds from excluding the others from that area. Excessive litter should be avoided on the floor. Also important, according to Dr Thiele, are to ensure birds are not disturbed while they are laying and to collect any floor eggs regularly – several times a day, if necessary.

Alternative Systems for Meat Chickens and Turkeys

"Alternative systems can deliver."

Legislative and assurance scheme requirements for standard and alternative indoor and outdoor broiler and turkey production systems were described by Dr Tracey Jones of welfare campaigners, Compassion in World Farming, in a paper co-written with Dr Jutta Berg of the FLI in Celle, Germany.

She explained that health and welfare are protected to various extents by a series of input requirements, which cover stocking density, light, environmental control parameters, environmental enrichment, permitted mutilations and growth rate. Outcome measures, on the other hand, are usually related to physical well-being and tend to highlight flocks that performed poorly. Success depends on the effectiveness of the input and output measures, the reporting structure and remedial action taken.

Alternative systems represent a low market share of broiler and turkey production in the EU – approximately 10 and 30 per cent, respectively – and generally, production costs are higher, said Dr Jones.

Free-range and organic systems are perceived as having the potential to provide good living conditions and reduce environmental pollution, she continued, but concerns have been raised over bird health (Campylobacter infection), welfare (higher foot lesions and breast blisters and lack of outdoor ranging), product quality and consumers' willingness to pay.

Research shows that breed suitability is one of the most important factors determining welfare in alternative systems, particularly for broiler chickens. Dr Jones recommended that more robust and hardy breeds with lower growth rates should be used as these birds are better suited to a wide range of environments and perform well on less energy-dense diets.

The quality of the diet, particularly in relation to essential amino acids and protein balance and the free-range environment (particularly in relation to natural cover outdoors) are also highly important for both broilers and turkeys, she said.

The meat from slow growing broiler breeds is more suited to the whole bird market (as opposed to portioned or further processed) and generally contains less fat and more protein than from conventional breeds, according to Dr Jones. Consumers tend to be unable to differentiate chicken products from alternative system by odour and taste but can differentiate by appearance and texture.

"Alternative systems can deliver," concluded Dr Jones, adding that breed suitability and the quality of the outdoor area are important considerations. For the future, she highlighted the need to focus on balancing organic diets to reduce feather pecking and a need for clearer labelling so consumers can make informed decisions about their purchasing of poultry meat.

November 2011

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