UC Davis awarded grant for keel bone research in hens

Keel bone damage is a multifactorial problem
calendar icon 14 September 2023
clock icon 3 minute read

Keel bone damage, such as deviations or fractures in a bird’s breastbone is a prevalent problem among commercial laying hens. This damage may be painful for hens and can be linked to the number and quality of their eggs.

To address this welfare and production challenge, the Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research, or FFAR, and Open Philanthropy created the Layer Hen Keel Bone Health Program to provide funds to support global, cross-disciplinary teams that use evidence-based approaches to measurably reduce the incidence of keel bone damage.

The program is awarding two grants totalling nearly $3 million to researchers at the University of California, Davis, and the University of Edinburgh. They are taking innovative genetic and interdisciplinary approaches to investigating the causes of keel bone damage. Several matching funders provided support for a total of nearly $7 million. The funding expands upon previous FFAR grants for keel bone research.

Keel bone damage is a multifactorial problem attributed to a combination of housing design, genetics, feed and nutrition, behaviour, rearing practices and other issues.

“Improving the welfare of animals is a critical component of animal husbandry, and keel bone damage is a serious threat to the well-being of layer hens,” said Nikki Dutta, FFAR interim scientific program director for Advanced Animal Systems. “These research projects are helping ensure humane treatment and a better quality of life for the animals that meet our food and nutrition needs.”

Department of Animal Science Professor Huaijun Zhou, who is also director of the USAID Feed the Future Innovation Lab, is the principal investigator for the UC Davis team, which received matching funding from Hy-Line International and Open Philanthropy. University of Edinburgh Professor Ian Dunn is leading a separate effort.

Zhou’s team aims to decrease the occurrence of keel bone damage by examining housing environments and assessing the relation and role of genetics. The researchers are identifying genetic markers associated with keel bone damage in breeding flocks raised under different housing environments and improving genetic selection to promote resistance to keel bone fractures. They are also evaluating the effects of housing design interventions on the development, type and prevalence of keel bone damage. Alternative housing designs and an economic analyses to determine the costs and gains from the proposed adjustments are also being explored.

“Like many other economically important traits in poultry, keel bone damage is a complex issue affected by genetic and environmental factors, such as type of housing system,” said Zhou. “By partnering with Hy-Line International, we are thrilled with the opportunity to apply advanced genetic, genomic and precision livestock farming technologies to sustainably improve poultry well-being and production.”

UC Davis associate professors Maja Makagon, Richard Blatchford and Hao Cheng, in the Department of Animal Science, and Distinguished Professor Daniel Sumner, in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics are collaborating with Zhou. Additional collaborators include Yang Zhao from University of Tennessee; and Danny Lubritz, Anna Wolc, Petek Settar, Kaylee Roland and Luke Kramer from Hy-Line International.

“Hy-Line International is proud to be collaborating with Dr. Huaijun Zhou and his team at UC Davis on this hen keel bone health project,” said Lubritz, Hy-Line International’s director of research and development. “We believe this research will deliver tools for the early detection and genetic improvement of keel bone health in cage and cage free settings. Hy-Line International can integrate this information into its genomic program to simultaneously improve egg production, egg quality and bird welfare.”

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