Could genetics counteract feather pecking?

Why a ban on beak trimming won’t stop the ‘super peckers’ going for feathers, Melanie Epp reports
calendar icon 1 May 2018
clock icon 5 minute read

Damage from feather pecking and cannibalism presents severe welfare problems and has major economic implications for poultry producers. The problem is one that will only be compounded when beak trimming is banned for welfare reasons. While farmers have been told that making adjustments to their management systems - such as providing enrichment tools and more space - will virtually eliminate the behaviour, recent research suggests that this is unlikely to be the case.

According to research conducted by Dr Werner Bessei of the University of Hohenheim, Germany, feather pecking is a genetic, not management, issue. Based on their results, Bessei and his fellow researchers believe a better understanding of poultry genetics could lead to a reduction in cannibalism and feather pecking in birds.

Most scientists believe that feather pecking is the result of misguided foraging behaviour. The strategy in the fight against feather pecking, therefore, is to provide the birds with more occupation, like scratching and foraging. Other strategies include using diluted feed to divert attention from feather pecking to prolonged eating.

“In most cases, it does not have a significant impact on feather pecking,” says Bessei. “It may reduce feather pecking, but you cannot totally avoid it.”

Bessei believes the urge to peck is influenced by genetics, not environment. During the course of his study, he came across a group of birds that he called ‘super peckers’. While such birds accepted the occupation tools, they still went for feathers, and the researchers wanted to know why.

“Obviously, there is a special genetically based drive to eat feathers,” he said. “And that’s the first difference from our theory to the theory that exists in most of the publications. It’s just because these birds want to eat feathers, so feather eating is the primary motivation.”

What their findings suggest is that even if farmers employed all the recommended management strategies to reduce feather pecking, they would have little impact, says Bessei, who points out that the problem still exists in free-range production. “How can you argue that feather pecking is caused on the basis of occupation?” he asks. “They have sufficient occupation.”

The good news is that Bessei believes that it is possible to genetically select with aggression, feather pecking and production in mind. “They have been doing that in Scandinavia for years now,” he says. “But only if you can control light intensity.”

“If you’re working indoors, you can still reduce light intensity,” he continues. “And that is, to my knowledge, the only reliable means to reduce feather pecking and the damages of cannibalism. But in free-range you cannot do that, so you have to live with the risk that if you are getting an outbreak, you are going to lose 10 to 20 percent of your birds.”

Bessei believes that a ban on beak trimming is premature. “Farmers are being told that they are doing something wrong in their management,” he says. “But they’re not.”

Bessei concedes that better management can reduce feather pecking, but not in all birds, and certainly not all the time. “In some flocks it was okay, and in some we have disaster,” he says. “So I think that it’s not fair to the farmer to say if you have good management you won’t get feather pecking. That has been shown in our experiments.”

“Whatever you do, you have a percentage of birds that will not stop feather pecking, and that can be disastrous,” he continues.

Bas Rodenburg, associate professor at Wageningen University, in the Netherlands, isn’t sure that feather pecking can be eliminated either, but he does believe that major outbreaks can be prevented through flock management. Rodenburg has also conducted studies on the heritability of feather pecking. Dutch farmers are currently preparing for a ban on beak trimming, set to begin in 2018.

In one study, where the objective was to estimate heritabilities of feather pecking and the open-field responses of laying hens at two different ages, he concluded that gentle feather pecking and open-field behaviours may be used in selection to reduce the prevalence of pecking feathers in subsequent generations.

“Of course, not all flocks will perform as well,” he says. “There will always be some flocks with some feather damage, I think, but a lot can be done by a combination of breeding and a good, early-life environment and a good laying environment.”

Already some farmers have switched over to raising birds with intact beaks, and so far it seems to be going well, says Rodenburg. “Probably because people have been really focused on management and doing a good job,” he suggests. “Also, the feeding companies and veterinarians among others are keeping an eye on what’s happening.”

“Indeed, I think [weeding out feather pecking] can be done,” he adds. “But it is challenging, especially for a country that has quite large flocks, quite intensive farming, and a lot of birds without free-range access,” he says. “But I think it can be done.”

Like Bessei, Rodenburg sees genetics as part of the whole package. “I don’t think genetics is the only solution,” he says. “It’s not like we can just switch it off by breeding…But,” he concludes, “I do think it plays an important role.”

This article was originally published in the September 2017 edition of Poultry Digital Magazine

Ryan Johnson

Editor at The Poultry Site

Ryan worked in conservation from 2008 to 2017, during which time he operated a rainbow trout hatchery and helped to maintain public and protected green spaces in Canada for the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority. As editor of The Poultry Site, he now writes about challenges and opportunities in agriculture across the globe.

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