Researchers crack open the latest in poultry welfare

Posted on Monday, June 4th, 2018

Written by Megan Wright, OAC Communications Intern

A layer hen in a research barn.

From livestock farmers to pet owners, learning about the latest in animal welfare research is good for the caretaker and the animal. But sharing the latest research with industry is especially important. Welfare of animals is arguably the number one management issue facing farmers today.

On May 9th the Campbell Centre for the Study of Animal Welfare (CCSAW) hosted their 11th Annual Animal Welfare Research Symposium. This day-long event is held at the University of Guelph, and is open to researchers, industry professionals, and anyone with an interest in animal welfare research.  

This year the symposium included five sessions on poultry, mice, dogs, mink and cattle in which faculty and graduate students presented their latest research findings. 

Here’s a round-up of three poultry research studies shared at the symposium.

What Causes Feather Pecking?

Recent research, conducted by master’s student Caitlin Decina, showed higher rates of feather pecking in brown feathered hens, as well as hens with midnight feedings, and those without scratch areas provided in their housing. 

Her study of associations between hen management and feather damage in Canadian laying hens housed in furnished cages is extremely relevant to industry. Canadian egg farmers are transitioning from caged housing to free-run or enriched cage housing, but with this transition, researchers and farmers know the risk of feather pecking increases.

Feather pecking in laying hens is a stress response, and can cause pain and a higher risk of injuries. 

Decina developed a feather damage scoring system, which she sent to poultry producers to use as a guide. She asked producers to score the feather damage of 50 hens and only score the most common area for feather pecking, the back and hind area. 

She explained at the symposium that she believes that midnight feedings interrupt the hens night phase and time of rest, which stresses them out. However, the reason for higher rates in brown feathered hens is unclear, and more research needs to be conducted.    

Decina is a student in the Department of Population Medicine who is working with Profs. Olaf Berke and Alexandra Harlander.

Her impressive presentation won her one of the two top student presentation awards at the symposium. 

How do rewards and enrichments reduce fearfulness in laying hens?

Misha Ross, a PhD candidate in the Department of Animal Biosciences, presented his research on startle reflex as a welfare indicator in laying hens. This is the first study of its kind and looked at how fearfulness can be reduced using rewards and enrichments. 

Chickens are startled by many things, making fear a problem for commercial poultry producers. Ross conducted two experiments, one using rewards, and the other using enrichments, to test if either reduced the hens startle reflex when exposed to stimuli. 

Ross designed a startle chamber, which was a cage containing either a reward or enrichment. The hens would have the option to enter the chamber, and then be startled by a flash of bright light. 

Ross found that while hens provided with enrichments had a large reduction in startle magnitude, rewarded hens did not. However, rewarded hens were less hesitant to enter the startle chamber. 

Ross first had to conduct a pilot study to determine how to stimulate and measure startle response, as affect mediated startle reflexes have never been studied in a bird species. He is still analyzing data, but is happy with his results so far. Ross is working with Profs. Georgia Mason, and Alexandra Harlander in the Department of Animal Biosciences.

Symposium attendees view student research posters.
Research students had the opportunity to showcase their research posters. 

CO2  as an acceptable euthanasia agent

The use of CO2 is still being assessed by the turkey industry as a reliable and welfare-minded method of euthanasia. That’s why Rathnayaka Bandara, a PhD candidate in the Department of Animal Biosciences, is researching the aversion and time to loss of consciousness to CO2 gas exposure in turkeys. She hopes to establish science-based best practices to ensure that euthanasia devices in poultry are humane, effective, and pose minimal threat to operators.

She presented her research that used a two-compartment chamber consisting of a treatment and control chamber. In her study, Bandara released four different concentrations of CO2 into the chamber to determine at what concentration turkeys became averse to entering the chamber willingly.

A reward was placed in the treatment chamber to entice birds to enter. It was found that after a concentration of 25 percent CO2, birds were reluctant to enter.

Bandara also discovered that the motivation to access feed and enrichment in the treatment chamber was higher than the avoidance to enter. At a 25 percent concentration, it takes longer for birds to fall unconscious, but they were less averse. 

Bandara is studying the effectiveness of different on-farm turkey euthanasia practices across North America under the advisement of Profs. Tina Widowski and Stephanie Torrey in the Department of Animal Biosciences. 

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