Improving chicken welfare and productivity with omega-3

Prof. Elijah Kiarie, Department of Animal Biosciences


By Samantha McReavy

To maintain high productivity and quality of life for poultry, providing a nutrient dense feed that promotes safe and effective growth is essential – and University of Guelph researchers think flaxseed may be the key.

Prof. Elijah Kiarie, Department of Animal Biosciences, is working with a team to determine the effectiveness of omega-3 supplementation for breeding hens in improving their chicks’ health and well-being. The team -- PhD students Aizwarya Thanabalan, Reza Akbari Moghaddam Kakhki and Rosemary Whittle and collaborator Prof. Tina Widowski – has established that flaxseed is an effective and sustainable source of omega-3 in poultry diets that can be easily transferred from the hen to her egg and then to the developing chick.

Now, they’re adding omega-3-rich flaxseed into poultry feed and analyzing the effects that maternal supplementation has on bone, gut and mental health of chicks.

“The chicken industry is undergoing changes because consumption of chicken is increasing rapidly,” says Kiarie. “Chickens are bred to grow at much faster rates, putting a strain on their bodies that can increase risk of mortality. Flaxseed may help.”

Broiler chickens, which are raised for meat, grow to 4,200 grams in 50 days. This is four-and-a-half times faster than chicken growth in the 1950s. Most of the increased weight gain is from muscle but their bones aren’t able to grow fast enough to support the increase in muscle mass.

This can limit the ability of chickens to move which can result in a multitude of health issues.

Similarly, egg-producing chickens, known as layer chickens, produce about 320 eggs a year. This is a dramatic increase from the 1960s when the average egg production from chicken was about 140 per year.

Egg shells are high in calcium which is drawn from the diet or from hens’ bones, if necessary. If the calcium is not being replenished fast enough, laying chickens can develop osteoporosis. This condition can increase the risk of broken bones and can significantly cut into farmers’ profits as well.

Researchers know that omega-3 has many roles within the body – it aids in bone growth, helps to strengthen the digestive system and promotes brain health. Omega-3 helps facilitate bone health by increasing the amount of calcium that bones absorb. This can strengthen bones to support muscle mass and reduce the risk of osteoporosis development in chickens, reducing mortality.

Omega-3 may also help to strengthen the digestive system. That protects chickens from developing infections that would normally require antibiotics. Brain development may also be enhanced with omega-3 use which could improve temperament.

Researchers hope that feeding omega-3 to maternal chickens allows them to experience these benefits and will also pass some of these positive changes onto their offspring.

“Feeding omega-3 to chickens makes them healthier and better able to cope with fast growth rates,” says Kiarie. “When healthy chickens reproduce, the resulting chicks are more likely to be healthy because their parents were healthy.”

Next steps for Kiarie includes determining omega-3’s effectiveness for protecting chickens against disease and reducing mortality rates. Kiarie is also working with Widowski to analyze the effect of omega-3 on fearfulness and aggression in chickens.

This project was funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, Chicken Farmers of Canada, Egg Farmers of Canada, Egg Farmers of Ontario, Ontario Agri-Food Innovation Alliance, O&T Farms and Alltech.