Preventing Lameness in Broiler Chickens

This research was executed within the third sub-project of Welfare Quality®, which focuses on the development of practical strategies to improve farm animal welfare.
calendar icon 30 May 2008
clock icon 4 minute read

Animal welfare is a complex concept but there is general agreement within the scientific community and beyond that our farm animals should be able to move easily and be maintained in good health, as described in the Welfare Quality® fact sheet ‘Principles and criteria of good animal welfare’.

Lameness in broiler chickens is one of the issues being tackled in the European Union-funded Welfare Quality research project designed to integrate farm animal welfare into the food chain by developing reliable on-farm welfare assessment systems and practical strategies to improve farm animal welfare.

According to researchers participating in this project, farmers often significantly underestimate the scale of lameness in their broiler flocks and in doing so, they risk reducing the birds’ welfare as well as product quality and profitability.

Between 10% and 30% of the birds in European broiler flocks may suffer from painful leg disorders caused by bone and joint infections as well as skeletal abnormalities, which have been linked to fast growth during the first few weeks of life. Encouragingly though, Welfare Quality researchers have discovered how a different diet and feeding regime can significantly reduce lameness and thereby improve animal welfare.

A new kind of diet

Welfare Quality scientists have shown that lameness in broilers can be reduced by slowing down the birds' rate of growth during the first few weeks and then speeding it up once their bones have developed.

By using a new combination of two diets and a sequential feeding method, the researchers discovered that they could slow growth during a chick’s early stages without reducing final carcass weight.

The researchers recommend a 48-hour feeding cycle with two diets instead of the traditional continuous distribution of a single diet.

For the first seven days of life, broiler chicks should be fed a standard starter diet. Then, from day 8 to day 28, the diets should rotate every 48 hours between a low-energy, high-protein (E-P+) diet and a high-energy, low-protein (E+P-) diet. That makes for a total of 10 cycles of E-P+ and E+P-.

The birds should then be given a standard finishing diet from day 29 onwards. This novel regime not only reduced instances of lameness but also brought the broilers up to standard slaughter weight without the need for any additional feeding days.

An E-P+ diet contained 97 per cent of the energy and 121 per cent of the protein of a standard diet. For the E+P- part of the feed cycle, the diet comprised 103 per cent of the energy of a standard one with 79 per cent of the protein.

Is this new method more expensive?

Welfare Quality researchers are still analysing the price differences between the feeding programmes but initial results suggest that the sequential one is not more expensive than the standard one. The cost of the sequential programme becomes even lower when protein-rich feed ingredients like rapeseed and dried distillers grains with solubles (DDGS)- by-products from the biofuel production - are cheap because they can be used effectively to replace other more expensive dietary components in the E-P+ part of the cycle.

A win-win situation

The sequential feeding method developed by the Welfare Quality researchers could be a win-win situation for the chickens and the farmers; it could improve bird welfare by reducing lameness at no extra cost while safeguarding the farmers’ profits.

More information:

Dr Christine Leterrier, [email protected]
Dr Xavier Manteca, [email protected]

April 2008

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