Resource package reduces feather pecking and improves ranging in free-range layers

Provision of a resource package reduces feather pecking and improves ranging distribution on free-range layer farms

By Isabelle C Pettersson, Claire A Weeks, Christine J Nicol. 2017. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 195: 60-66.

Highlights

• The effect of a resource package on welfare was studied on 14 commercial farms.
• Shelters, pecking pans and wind chimes were installed following a baseline year.
• Shelters and pecking pans were used consistently by birds.
Feather pecking decreased and range distribution improved.
• Some other welfare measures showed improvement.

Abstract

The effect of a resource package designed to reduce inter-bird pecking and increase range use was tested on fourteen free-range farms in the UK. The package comprised two types of objects intended to attract pecking behaviour: ‘pecking pans’ containing a particulate pecking block, and wind chimes; plus long, narrow shelters placed just outside the popholes, bridging a barren area 2–10 m from the house, with the aim of improving bird distribution on the range. We predicted that if the resource package succeeded in these aims, overall bird welfare would also be improved. Fourteen commercial farms were enrolled for this two-year study. Flocks were assessed for pecking behaviour, range use and general indicators of welfare at 40 weeks in Year 1 without the resource package. The resource package was then added to the same houses at the start of the next flock cycle in Year 2. The new flocks were assessed in the same way at 40 weeks with additional observations taken of their use of the resource package at 25 and 40 weeks. These additional observations showed that most aspects of pecking behaviour directed at the pecking pans remained consistent from 25 to 40 weeks although a reduction in substrate pecking frequency was seen (p < 0.001) and birds perched on the pan for longer (p = 0.033) and more often (p = 0.010) at 40 weeks. Although consistent within houses, wind chime use was very variable between houses, with pecking observed in only 8 of the 14 houses. The number of birds under the shelters increased from 25 to 40 weeks (p = 0.018), as did the proportion of birds that went under a shelter within 5 min of entering the range area (p = 0.021). Birds were more likely to use a shelter within 5 min if they exited the shed via a pophole within 10 m of the shelter rather than a pophole more than 10 m away at both 25 weeks (p < 0.001) and 40 weeks (p = 0.001).

A reduction in gentle feather pecking (p = 0.001) and severe feather pecking (p = 0.018) behaviour was seen when the resource package was provided in Year 2. Range distribution also improved, with a greater proportion of birds seen 2–10 m from the house (p = 0.023). Additionally, the proportion of abnormal eggs (p = 0.010), headshaking behaviour (p = 0.009) and the percentage of wet/capped litter (p = 0.043) decreased in Year 2.