4.2. Housing

This post includes the following sections:
Housing system
* Indoor system
* Covered veranda
* Free range
Functional zones
Furnishment
* Litter
* Perches
* Nests
Light
* Source
* Intensity
* Colour
* Dimming of light
Further reading
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Housing system

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Indoor system

Cages have the advantage of limiting group sizes, but the disadvantage of restricting your potential to control injurious pecking. Lighting should be situated so as to allow for a correct contrast in illumination between shaded (nesting box) and open areas (litter). Resources should be made readily available in order to restrict competition between birds. Loose housing systems should be designed so that birds can easily move throughout the house. This gives them ease of access to all facilities thus reducing the risk of injurious pecking. Additionally, it will make it easier for them to escape any feather-pecking attempts.

Slatted floors, little ramps and stairs may be used to facilitate an easy access to and movement through the system
Slatted floors, some ramps and stairs may be used to facilitate an easy access to and movement through the system

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Covered veranda

A covered veranda provides a number of advantages. It provides an enrichment of the environment and often also an expansion of the space per bird. Verandas are ideal for providing supplementary foraging materials and dust baths. Access to covered verandas can be given to the hens during bad weather when access to the range is restricted. Birds often become stressed when access to the range is prohibited because of bad weather. A veranda can reduce this stress and ease congestion in the main house. Many scientific studies have established a reduced risk of injurious pecking with good litter and warmer temperatures in the main shed and verandas help to achieve these conditions. They also serve as a buffer area between the indoor and outdoor area; birds can adjust to climate and light before entering the range, which encourages them to go outside.

Covered veranda
Covered veranda

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Free range

When keeping hens in a free-range system it is important to make the most of what the system has to offer. It is essential to get the birds utilising the range to satisfy their normal foraging and dustbathing behaviour. Injurious pecking is very rarely seen outside on the range and additionally the hens have the opportunity to supplement their diet with what they can find outside. There is evidence to suggest that flocks with many birds outside using all areas of the range have better feather cover. There are many ways to make the range more attractive to the hens and help encourage them to move outside.

The pophole view

In order for the birds to take that first important step outside, the view from the pophole needs to be inviting. The popholes need to be easily accessible. Avoid having a large step or jump up onto the pophole. If the birds cannot see the range to attract them out, it is unlikely many of them will use it. Straw bales can help create a step up to high popholes or alternatively use a ramp. Wide popholes will help encourage range use and if the house has large barn doors, open them to improve range use. It is vital that the view from the popholes shows a range of features offering the hens protection, and allowing them to forage, dustbathe and perch.

attractive pophole view view of puddles from the pophole

Good range use is promoted by visible shelters, dustbaths, trees and other hens. Move artificial shelters close to the popholes when the hens are first let outside to draw them out.

Wet, muddy ranges with no visible shelter will result in poor range use by the hens and is a disease risk.
attractive pophole view with trees view of bare range from the pophole

Easily accessible range, trees and shrubs close to the shed will help attract the hens out.

Avoid large open spaces immediately outside the popholes. Try to fill the space with natural or artifical shelters to help attract the hens outside.

 

Natural shelter

Modern hens are derived from jungle fowl which are forest birds and naturally feel safer on a range with plenty of shelter. Natural cover on the range can be provided by planting trees, hedgerows and other shrubs. Increasing the amount and variety of vegetation and natural cover on the range will promote and maximise range use.

hens under trees hens in undergrowth

Having plenty of mature trees on the range will provide a more natural environment for the hens and will both increase the number of hens using the range and the distance they cover.

Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group (FWAG) can provide support to producers wishing to apply for grants to plant woodland on their ranges.

hens on range with saplings hens on range with mature trees

Hedges work well in drawing the hens out. The saplings in this photo are still young but will offer good cover when mature. See photo on the right.

This photo was taken a few years later from the same spot on the same range. You can see that the trees have grown considerably and are providing excellent cover and a variety of vegetation for the hens.

maize planted on the range log pile being used on the range

Planting patches of arable crops on the range will provide both a source of food and shelter for the hens.

Interesting features such as this log pile are attractive foraging opportunities for the hens and will help entice them out.

Trees can provide excellent shade which is very important in encouraging birds out on to the range on sunny days.

When planting saplings it is imperative that they are adequately protected from browsing.

Artificial shelters

Artificial shelters can provide essential cover on the range, especially when you are waiting for saplings and other vegetation to become established. Artifical shelters range from custom made shelters to old pieces of farm equipment. As long as they provide cover for the hens they will help to draw them out of the house.

fabric covered shelter shelter made from straw bales

Shelters can be made from a simple wooden structure and covered with a variety of materials such as corrugated iron, wood or tough fabrics.

Here straw bales with corrugated iron roof are being used as simple, cheap and effective shelters.

old trailer hens under tent

Old pieces of farm equipment can make great shelters, just ensure they are raised off the ground to prevent attracting vermin.

This tent design keeps the area underneath the shelter very dry and makes an excellent dust bathing area.

corrugated iron shelter old slats made into a shelter

Curved, corrugated iron make simple, but effective shelters that can be easily moved.

Old slats and wooden pallets can also be used to construct shelters. Cover the outside of the slats or pallets with plywood or a suitable solid material to give the birds better protection from elements.

Moving shelters close to the popholes is an effective method of encouraging the birds out, particularly when the birds are first given access to the range.

Shelters are particularly important in providing shade on hot days and help to increase the number of birds ranging on sunny days.

Other animals on the range

Hens are attracted to other animals using the range. Keeping other animals on the range can really improve range use. Alpacas and Llamas can also be used to help keep foxes away and are relatively cheap to purchase and keep. Using the range for grazing can also be a good opportunity to get a better return on the range area and will help to keep the grass short.

hens and alpacas hens and alpacas

Increasingly producers are using alpacas and llamas to protect their flocks from foxes.

Male llamas and alpacas can be cheap to purchase and require shearing once a year, toe nail clipping three times a year and twice yearly deworming and vaccinating.

cows on the range free range pigs

Hens are often found around grazing animals, this could be as the animals disturb insects which the hens can feed on.

Avoid keeping pigs on the range, as there are diseases, in particular erysipelas which can be transmitted between both species.

Managing the range

The range needs active management all year round to ensure normal behaviour and good health in the hens. Regularly topping the grass on the range in the summer reduces the risk of crop impaction and helps to kill parasitic worms on the soil. Areas around the popholes are notoriously hard to manage especially in poor weather, but excessive poaching, can discourage the hens from ranging, is a disease risk, and impacts on the quality of the litter inside the house. There are however ways to manage this area to improve drainage and avoid puddles. See how other producers have effectively managed the pophole area >>>

slats outside popholes new slats and fresh stones outside popholes

Old slats can be used around the popholes to prevent the area from becoming poached. This will also help to prevent the hens bringing wet mud into the litter area, keeping the litter dry. Think of it as a large doormat for the hens to wipe their feet on.

Stone placed around the popholes will wipe the hen’s feet and help to stop them bring wet mud into the house. This again will help to keep the litter inside the shed dry and prevent dirty eggs. The stone needs to be topped up or replaced regularly between flocks to prevent muck and disease building up.

deep stone outside popholes freshly topped grass

If the stone is deep enough, it will aid drainage around the popholes, preventing puddles from forming and the rain will wash the muck through. Also make sure that any gutters lead away from the house.

The eggs of parasitic worms are sensitive to UV radiation and so by keeping the grass short on the range you increase the chance that the eggs will be exposed to UV radiation from the sun. This can help reduce the risk of the hens picking up viable eggs from the range.

range rotation muddy puddle on the range

Pasture rotation is a good method to control for parasites on the range and will prevent areas from becoming too poached. By rotating pastures throughout the laying period you can allow areas of the range to recover some vegetation before moving the hens back to that area.

Fencing off puddles or areas that are heavily poached is a good idea. Try to fill in large, deep puddles as they are a source of disease.

Predator control

Predators, primarily foxes, but also dogs, mink and badgers can cause panic in a flock leading to outbreaks of feather pecking. The most effective way to control against foxes is to use electric and poultry fencing around the range, this is sometimes complemented by llamas and alpacas. In order for a fence to be fox proof it needs to be tall and secure all the way round the range.

robust, tall fence a secure, electric fence

A six foot fence is often quoted as being high enough to prevent a fox jumping over. Otherwise a 5 foot fence with an overhang can work. Ideally the fence should also be buried underground and turned outwards to prevent foxes digging in. Fences should be checked on a regular basis for potential entrances.

Any grass or vegetation touching the electric wire will leak current to earth and if wet will soon short the fence our making it ineffective, so vegetation around the fence needs to be cleared regularly.

alpacas and hens on the range alpacas and hens on the range

Alpacas and llamas are becoming increasingly popular with free range producers who are having problems protecting their flocks against foxes. They make effective guards and will chase away foxes and encourage more hens to range.

Alpacas can be bought for between £400 and £700.

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Functional zones

One can distinguish 3 areas in a henhouse:

      • the activity zone, where litter, food, roughage etc. is located
      • The nesting zone, where birds should not be disturbed
      • The resting zone, with perches, where it should be quiet

In order to maintain a calm flock it is best to keep these zones separate as much as possible. Therefore, there should be no feeders in front of nesting boxes and an area with perches should be separated from foraging areas (either by separate positioning or elevation to another level).
Although light should be evenly distributed throughout a henhouse , the resting and nesting zones can provide slightly more shade and activity zones more light.

Furnishment

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Litter

It is essential to be proactive to keep the litter in good condition. Hens have an inbuilt need to forage and dry, friable litter is vital to the hens for foraging behaviour and other positive behaviours such as dust bathing. If the litter becomes wet or capped this can be frustrating for the hens and can lead to injurious pecking starting in the flock. Attention needs to be paid to maintaining litter quality throughout the life of the flock. Interventions can be as simple as frequent raking/forking over the litter or rotavating and then topping up with fresh, clean litter. If there is a persistent problem with wet or capped litter then it is worth investigating the underlying causes. For example, there could be a problem with the ventilation in the house or the condition of the range outside the popholes or leaking gutters. Addressing these issues will make keeping the litter dry and friable an easier and more satisfying task. There is no simple cure. Keeping the litter in good condition is essential for the health and welfare of your hens (see also the Hennovation flyer on Litter).

a hen scratching in dry litter hens on fresh, dry litter

The hens should have access to dry, friable litter from day 1 in the laying house. They would have had access in the rearing house and preventing access will cause frustration and could trigger injurious pecking.

Fresh, clean litter should be added to scratch area when needed. Highly absorbent wood pellet bedding is a very effective litter material and although currently relatively expensive it can be used in problem areas where the occurrence of capped litter is common.

a producer forking litter good drainage outside popholes

Keeping the litter dry and friable can require active management. Frequent raking or forking over the litter will keep the litter condition under control and make the task more manageable and rewarding.

Often the litter areas around the popholes become capped or wet. Managing the area outside the popholes can help keep the litter dry and creates an additional benefit by preventing dirty eggs.

capped litter two fully feathered hens on litter

If the litter becomes thickly capped it should be removed and fresh litter put down. Having in place a system of regular litter quality monitoring and treatment can prevent the litter getting to this stage in the first place.

These birds are 65 weeks old. Keeping the litter in good condition throughout lay is vital for the hens ability to express normal foraging behaviour. Maintaining litter quality is the single most important enrichment you can provide to reduce the risk of feather pecking. Well worth the effort.

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Perches

Perches provide resting places for hens and reduce the risk for feather pecking. However, positioning, shape and material of the perches should be taken into account.
In order to control vent pecking avoid perches which present the vent at bird eye-level. This applies to any object that the hens can perch on, for example nipple lines and feed tracks. Try to ensure they are positioned either very low or more than 40 cm high.
To reduce the risk of keel bone damage or deformities, perches should preferably have a flattened upper surface. Wooden perches often attract red mites, which are a stressor for the birds and increase the risk of injurious pecking. Metal perches are easier to clean, but may not be as comfortable for the hens and often don’t have a flat surface.

Nests

Nests should be designed to encourage hens to lay eggs in them. A well designed nest is almost, but not completely, dark inside. Hens should be able to at least see a part of the bottom of the nest and thus feel confident enough to step inside. Appropriate positioning of the lights on the ceiling of the house usually provides sufficient illumination of the nests. If this is not the case, then dim lighting in the nest could encourage hens to enter.
On the other hand, darkness in nest boxes prevents vent pecking, which is especially important in nests where hens sit with their rear towards the nest entrance (hens mostly sit in an ‘uphill’ direction when laying eggs).
There is a link between nest box illumination and vent pecking. If lighting is used for training then the lighting should be dimmable and once the hens have successfully learnt to lay in the nests (normally around peak production), the nest box lights should be gradually dimmed and turned off.
Tip: Having space at the end of a nest box run encourages birds to move easily to the other side and reduces the risk of smothering during competition for preferred nesting positions.

Light

Although the exact mechanism is not yet known, light has a large influence on the behaviour of the birds. Light can direct birds to places to forage and darker places can attract birds to lay eggs or find a place to rest. A good light plan can result in a proper use of the facilities by the birds and can reduce the risk of undesirable behaviours. Experiences on commercial farms learn that bright spots may trigger birds to smother or to start feather pecking. Dark spots may attract birds to lay eggs in inappropriate places.
Choice and positioning of lights is essential to an even distribution of illumination throughout the henhouse. It is important to:

      • try to ensure that there is an even distribution of light throughout the house. Make a good lighting plan with the help of an expert to determine the number, type(s) and positioning of the light sources. Lights in the aisles or on the ceiling can be larger than lights in the system.
      • Zones in the house where birds eat or forage may be slightly brighter than other areas in the house.
      • Repair malfunctioning lights as soon as possible, to avoid dark spots.
      • Daylight is a good source of light, but beams or spots of sunlight may give problems, therefore try to avoid these.

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Source

Chickens can see the flickering of low frequency fluorescent lighting (FL) and this can be stressful for them. In order to avoid this, light sources should have either a high frequency (e.g. HF-FL) or no frequency (e.g. LED). There is some evidence that chickens can even see the flickering of high frequency lights if they are kept under high intensity full spectrum light! Under these circumstances a good LED would be a better light source.

LED lighting systems have improved a lot in recent years. Light intensity is not a problem anymore. Advantages are: low energy cost, durable, shockproof and they can be produced in any desired spectrum. A point of attention is the dimming electronics. Dimming of LED can be done in two ways: 1. slowly reducing the power and thus reducing the light-intensity ; 2. switching the LED on-off, making the off phase longer to reduce the light-intensity. This second type of dimming produces a flicker frequency, which is not a problem as long as the frequency is high enough. However, some LEDs produce flickering (when dimmed) below 100Hz, which then can be seen by the birds. These LEDs may cause stress to the birds and therefore are not advised in poulty houses.

There is a simple trick to see if lights have a low frequency. Set your mobile phone in camera modus, point it to the area where the light is and look at the screen. If you see flickering on the screen, the light source has a low frequency. When actually taking a photo you may see bands running over the picture (see also the Hennovation flyer on Light sources).

Flickering_picture

Intensity

Ideally hens should have at least 20 lux of light at bird level. This enables them to see their environment and to find their way around. Hens usually behave less fearfully in bright light compared to dimmed conditions. Dimming the lights to control injurious feather pecking should only be performed as a last resort or emergency measure.

Although large variations in light intensity are not advisable, some slight variation may be advantageous. The nesting and resting zones can be kept slightly dimmer, to enable resting and undisturbed egg laying.  The litter and foraging areas can be slightly brighter to enable the birds to find food and encourage them to work the litter. These are all nuances and bright (sun)beams of light should be prevented as much as possible.

Colour

Chickens have full colour vision and can even see ultraviolet light. Compared with humans they can see better in the blue/green and in the orange/red spectrum.

Vision-turkey-duck-human-chicken_color

Because of their wider visual range, chickens see the world differently. In the presence of UV specific particles may light up, attracting birds to peck. In the absence of attractive litter, this may cause birds to peck at feathers. Provision of full spectrum light should therefore always be combined with other measures, such as good litter quality and feed additives.
Although there is evidence that red light does reduce injurious pecking behaviour, it should be seen as an emergency measure. The exact spectrum hens prefer remains unknown, but providing a full spectrum white light is advised (see also the Hennovation flyer on Vision and the Flyer on Colour and Daylight).

Dimming of light

Providing dimmer phases at the start and end of the lighting period may have a calming effect on the birds.
To allow birds to calmly find a place to roost, there should be a dimming phase at the end of the day. This can be achieved by slowly dimming the lights or by a stepwise schedule of switching off lights, starting with the lowest positioned lights. It is advisable to have small lights in the ceiling that are switched off 15 minutes after all other lights have been turned off.
In the morning lights can be switched on immediately, but it may be advantageous to include a dimming phase in the morning as well. When birds lay their eggs before the lights are switched on, it may help to have some dimmed lights on so they can find the nest boxes instead of laying their eggs on the floor.
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Further reading

SPECIFIC

English – Housing

Scientific

Nederlands – uitloop

Nederlands – Licht

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) Report Licht op Licht (Van Niekerk et al., 2015).
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). Licht op licht [Light on light]. Van Niekert et al., 2015 (Report, 36 pp).

Dansk

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

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