4. Risk factors

Risk factors of feather pecking are described in separate webpages. Below the main pages are listed. A figure is showing how risk factors relate to feather pecking, and finally a more detailed list is given of subsections.
Main pages:
4.1. A good start
4.2. Housing
4.3. Management
4.4. Feed
4.5. Health
4.6. Climate
4.7. Bird-related factors.

 

Risk factors of feather pecking
Risk factors of feather pecking

The pages have the following further subdivision:

  • Risk factors
    1. A good start
      1. Rearing
        1. Litter
        2. Early access to litter
        3. Maintaining litter quality
        4. Light
        5. System
        6. Environmental enrichment during rearing
      2. Placement
        1. Matching rearing and lay
        2. Early access to range
    2. Housing
      1. Housing system
        1. Indoor system
        2. Covered veranda
        3. Free range
        4. Functional zones
      2. Furnishment
        1. Litter
        2. Perches
        3. Netsts
      3. Light
        1. Source
        2. Intensity
        3. Colour
        4. Dimming of light
    3. Management
      1. Group effects
        1. Group size
        2. Stocking density
      2. Range
    4. Feed
      1. Feed composition
        1. Protein
        2. Fibre
      2. Managing the feed on the farm
        1. Diet change
        2. Feed form
        3. Number of feedings/day
        4. Feed rationing
      3. Feed additives
        1. Roughage
        2. Grain in litter
        3. (Lime) stones
      4. Pecking objects
        1. Pecking blocks
        2. Other pecking objects
    5. Health
      1. Healthy birds
        1. Gut health
        2. Vaccinations
      2. Disease pressure
        1. Litter condition
        2. Climate
        3. Poultry density
        4. Contact with other animals
      3. Parasites
        1. Red mites
        2. Worms
        3. Other parasites
      4. Human-animal relationship
      5. Fearfulness
    6. Climate
      1. Light
      2. Daylight
    7. Bird-related factors
      1. Genetics
      2. Age and previous experiences
  • Treatment
    1. Prevention
    2. Measures
    3. Treating affected birds
  • Importance
    1. Mortality
    2. Beak trimming
    3. Economics
  • Further reading

4.1. A good start

Rearing
* Litter
* Early access to litter
* Maintaining litter quality
* Light
* System
* Environmental enrichment during rearing
Placement
* Matching rearing and lay
* Early access to range
Further reading
.

Rearing

If feather pecking does not occur during rearing there is a good chance (70%) that it will not occur during the laying period either. However, if feather pecking does occur during rearing there is a much higher chance (90%) that it will occur during laying as well (Dutch research on commercial farms1). It is therefore extremely important to prevent injurious pecking during rearing.
During rearing, there are various important issues regarding the prevention of feather pecking:

Litter

Litter quality is especially important during rearing as it is often the only foraging material (apart from feed) available to the chicks. Abnormal behaviours such as injurious pecking are likely to develop because normal behaviours cannot be performed, or have not been learnt. One of the most influential of these behaviours is ground pecking, where chicks normally learn from their mother to peck at the ground and to forage for food. Absence of a mother hen and inferior litter substrates, hinder the development of good foraging behaviour. The effects of abnormal behaviours learnt during rearing are often displayed in the laying period even though they may go unnoticed during rearing. It is therefore important to address this problem already in the rearing phase. Be proactive and keep litter in good condition, identify the causes of poor litter quality and eliminate them.

Early access to litter

During rearing it is very important to provide good friable litter throughout the whole period. In many rearing systems birds are kept on wire floors covered with paper during the first weeks. Food is scattered onto the paper so that birds have foraging material available. Between 3 and 5 weeks of age birds are allowed to enter the litter area. As the paper is removed or disappears at around 3 weeks of age, there often is a period when chicks have no litter available. This period coincides with one of the moulting stages. At this stage birds are more susceptible to start feather pecking.

Maintaining litter quality

Inspect litter quality regularly during rearing and ensure that it is kept dry and friable throughout the entire rearing period. Wet patches should be removed and replaced with fresh, dry litter. Leaking drinkers, poor ventilation and structural problems in the rearing house are potential sources of wet litter during rearing. These should be promptly addressed and measures should be put in place to prevent the problem recurring. Adding material, e.g. roughage, can help to maintain litter quality and make the litter more attractive to the birds. Litter containing edible particles is particularly attractive, motivating the birds to continue foraging in the litter.

Light

Lighting schemes are used to manage the maturation rate of the pullets during rearing. Light intensity doesn’t seem to have a lot of influence on this maturation. However, to avoid any stress to the birds, it is important that the light intensity during rearing is matched to the subsequent laying conditions. Pullets that are to be transferred to a bright layer house should be reared under bright conditions to avoid stress to the birds. Ideally, the light source should be similar to that in the laying house. Birds housed in a layer unit with daylight should preferably be reared with (additional) daylight.
Lighting in the rearing house can affect pullet behaviour, just as it can in the laying period. Therefore, it is important to pay attention to light distribution and management. See for details:

  • Ensure an even light intensity throughout the house
  • Avoid spots and shafts of bright light
  • Avoid sudden changes in light levels.

Dimming the lights should not be the first method used to control injurious pecking but rather a last resort or emergency measure.

System

Rearing systems can be as simple as a fully littered floor, but also more complicated with at least an elevated slatted floor over a manure pit. Research has shown that the presence of perches in these systems reduces the risk of feather pecking during the laying period.
Modern rearing systems include aviary type systems or systems with movable floors (e.g. Nivo-Varia, Jumpstart). The floors in these systems are adjustable in height, so that young chicks can learn and adapt to differing levels. Whichever system is used it is important to provide a constant supply of suitable foraging material.

Environmental enrichment during rearing

It is important the hens’ behavioural needs are met from an early age. The early life experiences of a flock can dictate how the flock will behave in the future. Providing areas for the chicks to perch and additional foraging enrichment can both help prevent injurious pecking developing during rear.

very young chicks on a simple perch rearing shed set up with slats

Perches allow the birds to spread more throughout the house and promote behavioural synchrony. Studies have shown that providing access to perches before four weeks of age reduces the likelihood of injurious pecking.

Providing slatted areas in addition to the litter during the rearing stage is becoming increasingly popular.

day old chicks using slats a brush being used as an enrichment object

Providing slats at an early age enables the chicks to get used to slats before being placed into the laying shed. This will help make the transition between the two sheds smoother and should make managing floor eggs easier as the hens are more used to using slatted areas.

Providing objects for the chicks to peck at promotes positive foraging behaviour and helps to keep them occupied. This is especially important when the birds are learning what to peck at.

haynets in the rearing shed Pecking block

This photo shows crumpled egg trays in hay nets being used.

Use pecking blocks in both the rearing and the laying shed. When provided during rearing, hens will use them more in the laying period. There are various methods of providing pecking blocks. They can be placed either in the litter or on slatted floors. Suspended blocks appear to work well. For slatted areas large blocks can be broken into smaller pieces.
Recently, custom-made pecking blocks have become available. These blocks contain minerals and can contain other edible ingredients, such as grains.

..

Placement

.

Matching rearing and lay

Try to match the laying house environment to the conditions the pullets have experienced during rearing. Then pullets will find the laying house more familiar and the transition will be less stressful. Communication between rearer and laying hen keeper will enable a better match between the environment in both houses. It may not be possible to match everything, but the more is matched the greater the chance that your birds will make a good start to the laying period. Good and clear communication with the rearer is important to a successful transfer for the birds. The following items may be helpful as a checklist:

  • Light intensity and source: a similar light intensity and light source during rearing and laying periods reduces stress for the birds and thus the risk for injurious pecking.
  • Lighting schedule: try to match the lighting schedules (timing, periods of light and darkness) as closely as possible.
  • Feeder and drinker type: Nipple drinkers have been shown to reduce the risk of injurious feather pecking and should be used as a primary water source. But, provision of a few bell drinkers can help to improve the match between rearing and laying periods. Some birds may have a strong preference to use a bell drinker. Also attempt to match feeder type used during laying. Chain feeders are the most common during laying but pan feeders may be used initially to ensure that the chicks find food early on, while other feeders may be used additionally to provide variety and enable closer matching between the rearing and laying period.
  • Feeding times: Try to match not only the number of feeding times, but also the timing of when feed is provided. This can be gradually adjusted towards the required schedule during the initial weeks. It is now recognised that the timing of the chain feeder runs should allow a larger pause in the middle of the day to ensure that the smaller, less ‘tasty’ but very important feed particles will be eaten. This should be initiated during rearing and continued during lay.
  • Feed structure and composition: The form in which the food is presented may affect the time birds spend eating. Feeding finer ground food has been associated with lower levels of injurious pecking. A number of studies have found lower levels of injurious pecking during rearing and laying, when extra fibre was added to the diet. This may be due to dietary fibre improving the efficiency of the hens’ gastro-intestinal tract. If the diet contains insufficient fibre the hens may consume feathers in an attempt to compensate for fibre shortage.
  • Slats: type and positioning
  • Perches: type and positioning

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Early access to range

Allow the hens access to the range area as early as possible, considering weather conditions. Early outdoor access is associated with greater range use later in the laying cycle and the more hens you can encourage to use the range the lower the risk of injurious pecking.
.

Further reading

SPECIFIC

English

 Lit de haas Integr sci practice front 180216
Integrating science and practice in order to reduce feather pecking in commercial laying hens. De Haas, E. et al. (Poster, 318,56 kb).

Scientific

Nederlands

Taught early is done when old (in Dutch0
Jong geleerd is oud gedaan : opfok van leghennen voor alternatieve systemen. Bestman, M. en C. Keppler, 2002 (Report, 62pp).

GENERAL

English

FeatherWel - improving feather cover AssureWel - improving feather cover
FeatherWel management guide [pdf, 5.49mb] AssureWel advice guide [pdf, 661kb]

Nederlands

Treatment of feather pecking (in Dutch) Prevention of feather pecking (in Dutch)
Noodmaatregelen tegen pikkerij [Treatment of FP]. Van Niekerk et al. 2013 (Report, 32 pp). Van kuiken tot kip [Prevention of FP]. Van Niekerk et al.2011 (Report, 32 pp).

Dansk

Feather pecking key (in Danish)
Fjerpilningsnøgle [Feather pecking key]. Johansen, N.F. 2013 (Report, 48 pp).