Beak Trimming is Best for Long-Term Hen Welfare

CANADA - Despite discussion to ban beak trimming of layer chicks to prevent feather pecking later, Professor Classen of the University of Saskatchewan reports research that the practice is beneficial in terms of performance and there are no significant welfare implications when it is carried out correctly.
calendar icon 13 May 2011
clock icon 5 minute read

Beak trimming is a practice long employed in the egg production industry, according to Today's Farmer.

Over the years, moderate hot-blade beak trimming (50 per cent) has been found to be a very effective method of controlling the incidence of feather picking and cannibalism in laying flocks.

Yet a number of animal rights groups have targeted the practice, calling it bird mutilation. Their protest is partly responsible for a number of countries within the European Union banning the practice.

As a result, Professor Hank Classen of the University of Saskatchewan has led a research project over the past years, which has examined all aspects of the practice.

It was hoped that the addition of scientific evidence to the debate over beak trimming would result in logical policy decisions by both governments and industry stakeholders.

In a report, released at the London Poultry Show, Professor Classen's research showed that hot-blade beak trimming administered at 0, 10 and 35 days of age resulted in improved feed efficiency and hen feathering during the production period for all three trimming ages.

Data was collected on bird productivity and behaviour, beak re-growth and a histological examination of the healing process.

Professor Classen wrote that hot blade trimming at day-old resulted in more rapid healing, had less impact on behaviour and had no impact on growth rate compared to trimming at 10 and 35 days of age.

"For the 10 and 35 day treatments, altered behaviour and reduced growth rates were noted after the trimming process," said Professor Classen, adding, however, that by sexual maturity these affects had disappeared.

He added that more beak regrowth was noted for birds trimmed at 35 days of age but results of the research indicated that hatch is the preferred age for beak trimming.

Professor Classen said the pain associated with hot-blade trimming can be divided into a painless phase immediately after trimming (up to 24 hours), an acute pain phase associated with the healing process, and long-term chronic pain associated with phantom pain and the formation of beak neuromas (the swelling of the nerve).

"Our research used analgesics to confirm that day-old chicks do not alter behaviour after trimming, thereby supporting the concept of a painless phase," said Professor Classen, adding that behaviour is affected a day after the treatment confirms that hot-blade trimming does influence bird welfare.

He added that the affect of trimming on bird welfare was dependent on the age of trimming and was hardly noticeable by sexual maturity and not at all during the laying period.

He said histological examination of beaks failed to demonstrate neuroma formation when beak trimming is moderate and completed at a young age.

Professor Classen said an experiment was designed to determine the impact of 20 per cent, 40 per cent and 60 per cent beak trimming at zero days of age, continues the Today's Farmer report.

Both infra-red and hot-blade trimming methods were used.

He said the hot-blade trimming produced the desired range of trimming and at all levels reduced cannibalism and aggressive behavior and significantly increased egg production, feed efficiency and feathering.

"However, the 40 per cent to 60 per cent trimming gave the best control of both cannibalism and aggressive behaviour," he said, adding that the infra-red trimmings caused effects that were similar to moderate hot-blade trimming.

"Comparisons of zero day hot-blade and infra-red treatments demonstrated that both techniques successfully controlled cannibalism, reduced aggressive behaviour and improved feather condition."

Yet Professor Classen added that the infra-red treatment offered the advantages of a more precise trim with no open wounds that would permit infection, little or no pain post-treatment and an easier ability to eat before the beak is lost.

Professor Classen said four commercial flocks, two using the infra-red technique and two utilising the hot-blade method were assessed for beak trimming quality at both 21 and 57 weeks of age.

On each visit, 300 birds were assessed and there were no beaks found with major defects using either method.

However, it was found that infra-red trimming resulted in more symmetrical beaks with fewer abnormalities.

"Our results suggest that moderate beak trimming continues to be the most important management technique for control of cannibalism in laying hens and that modern treatment systems enhance long-term hen well-being," said Professor Classen.

He added that in particular, infra-red techniques appear to have advantages that result in superior beak length control, concludes the report in Today's Farmer.

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