Management tips to stop feather pecking

Management tips to stop feather pecking

By Tony McDougal. Poultry World, 2 Oct., 2017.

The UK branch of the World’s Poultry Science Association held its annual conference in Cambridge this summer. Scientists looked at poultry feathers and skin – the past, present and future of poultry integument.

Management risk factors and genetic influences have an effect on feather pecking, according to the University of Bristol’s Christine Nicol.

Thea van Niekerk, from the Wageningen Livestock Research centre, Netherlands, adds prevention is most important as once feather pecking begins, the behaviour is very hard to stop.

Ms van Niekerk explains that optimising rearing conditions to prevent injurious pecking was the first step: “The most important strategy in rear is a continuous presence of good substrate to stimulate foraging behaviour and to teach the pullets to direct their pecking towards the litter.”

Esther Ellen and Piter Bijima, of Wageningen University Research Animal Breeding and Genomics centre, assessed genetic solutions to injurious pecking.

They argued that, while behavioural observations can be used to select against feather pecking, they were expensive, time consuming and difficult to apply in animal breeding. Instead, a solution could come from quantitative genetic methods that took into account both the direct (DGE, victim effect) and indirect genetic effect (IGE, actor effect).

“For the survival time, we found that the victim effect contributes 35-87% of total heritable variation. Together, they explain 15-26% of total phenotypic variation in survival time.

Professor Nicol’s joint paper with Dr Claire Weeks, ‘Provision of a resource package reduces feather pecking and improves ranging distribution on free-range layer farms,’ was published in the Applied Animal Behaviour Science in July.

Note: Read more on … in Poultry World.

Practice vs theory on the prevention of feather pecking in laying hens in non-cage systems

Are practice recommendations for the prevention of feather pecking in laying hens in non-cage systems in line with the results of experimental and epidemiological studies?

By Lisa Jung, Ute Knierim, In press. Appl. Anim. Behav. Sci.


• We compared 15 practice recommendations with results of 108 empirical studies.
• On average each recommendation contained less than 50% of the 49 confirmed preventive factors.
• In total they also comprised 15 contentious and 12 not yet investigated factors.
• On this basis recommendations should be amended and further studies conducted.


Feather pecking (FP) in laying hens is an important animal welfare problem in practice, despite extensive research and increasing sources of advice for farmers. We aimed to give an overview over results from experimental and epidemiological studies. We included non-cage systems, covering the rearing and laying phase. The investigated factors were categorised into those with either good, contentious or no evidence regarding preventive effects on FP. Moreover, we wanted to know to what extent recommendations for farmers are based on this scientific evidence. We extracted 62 potential preventive factors from 88 experimental and 21 epidemiological studies. 17 factors during rearing, and 32 factors during the laying phase significantly affected the risk to develop FP or plumage damage (PD). Factors were counted as significant if other studies found no or at most one opposite result. Seven factors during rearing and 16 factors during laying were confirmed by more than one study, with no or at most one opposite result. Provision of dry litter on the floor and sufficiently high perches during rearing and laying or a high use of the free range area during the laying phase were among these influencing factors. In the reviewed 15 practice recommendations, almost all of these factors have been taken up, although no recommendation comprises all factors and most miss more than the half of them. This leaves ample room for improvement of the recommendations. On the other hand, they altogether recommend 15 contentious as well as eight non-significant or 12 not yet investigated factors for which further scientific investigation is necessary.

Update on Poultry Red Mite at International Egg Commission’s conference in Bruges

Challenges and solutions in coping with poultry red mite

Delegates at the International Egg Commission’s conference in Bruges were given an update on the spread of poultry red mite, the ongoing scientific work and solutions to controlling outbreaks.

Read more in Poultry World

From the article:

Poultry red mite (PRM) is widespread across Europe, the Middle East and the Far East. Only North America is currently free from mite.

PRM thrives in high temperatures and high humidity and has a life cycle of between 7-17 days.

It led birds to become restless at night, caused skin and feather irritation, could lead to feather pecking and cannibalism and disturbed the egg function at night. In moderate to severe cases, it led to anaemia, weight loss and immune-suppression.

They can survive without a single meal for a year or longer and can tolerate temperatures of up to 45°C and below -25°C.

The total annual cost of poultry med mite infestations in the European egg laying industry is estimated to be €231m and €3.2bn worldwide.

Integrated pest management is the way forward in tackling the mite.

End-user materials from the Hennovation project

Hennovation: “Practice lead innovation supported by science and market-driven actors in the laying hen and other livestock sectors”

The Hennovation project demonstrated the potential of innovation led by producers and industry (on-farm, during transport and at the abattoir) through the establishment of innovation networks that proactively searched for and utilized new ideas to make their business more efficient and sustainable. The networks initially tackle two particular issues of concern in the production chain: injurious pecking and the transport and use of end-of-lay hens. 19 innovation networks were mobilized at different levels of the production chain, local, national and European level in five countries (United Kingdom, Sweden, The Netherlands, Spain and The Czech Republic) These networks were supported by science driven-actors, such as veterinary surgeons, farm advisors and scientific researchers, and market-driven actors, such as those that buy eggs e.g. retailers, packers, food processors, and those certifying egg production e.g. farm assurance companies and certification schemes.

The on-farm networks, 15 in total, focussed on various aspects that are known to have influence on injurious pecking. Injurious pecking is a problem that has many risk factors and the networks tested a variety of innovative ideas. The off-farm networks, four in total, focussed on various aspects that are relevant for catching and transport of End-of-Lay hens.

Alongside product or technical innovation (e.g. new design of trolleys for depopulation, new type of litter material to reduce stress and encourage natural behaviour or the use of alpacas in organic systems to reduce predation), a variety of often less expected and sometimes unintended ‘soft’ innovations also emerged through these networks. These were related to protocol or process (e.g. a new way of monitoring Poultry Red Mite infestation and new relationships between production chain actors, for example the pullet rearers).

Based on the innovative ideas tested by the innovation networks 38 Practice Abstracts and an additional five technical notes were developed by the network facilitators for use in practice by end-users.

TN# Hennovation Technical notes
1 TN01 Monitoring Poultry Red Mite (available in English and Spanish)
2 TN02 A superior method of depopulating end-of-lay hens from enriched (colony) cages
3 TN03 Reducing predation of free ranging hens
4 TN04 Finally you have decided to cook hen!
5 TN05 Novel range cover options within an organic system


PA # Hennovation Practice Abstracts
1 PA 1 Light in the laying hen houses
2 PA 2 Feather scoring as a management tool to reduce injurious feather pecking in flocks with intact beaks.
3 PA 3 Adjustments of stocking density according to outside air temperature during transport of end-of-lay hens.
4 PA 4 Improving the catching and transporting of Laying hens to Slaughter at the End -of-Lay by adding value to hen meat.
5 PA 5 Chick rearing conditions crucial to prevent later feather pecking.
6 PA 6 How to keep laying hens with intact beaks – learning together.
7 PA 7 An easy monitoring method to improve control of Poultry Red Mite in laying hen flocks
8 PA 8 Critical points during catching and transport of end of lay hens
9 PA 9 Selection criteria for laying hen litter
10 PA 10 Litter for laying hens: rape seed straw and fibre hemp straw
11 PA 11 Climate checklist to reduce injurious feather pecking in laying hens
12 PA 12 Measures to suppress poultry red mite populations in henhouses
13  PA 13 Use of a spinosad to prevent red mites
14  PA 14 Unifying the dress code on farms reduces stress in laying hens
15  PA 15 Use of a cost-benefit tool to improve the business performance of egg production enterprises
16  PA 16 Evaluating innovations for on-farm use
17 PA 17 Influence of crate lids on welfare of hens
18 PA 18 Factors affecting dead on arrival (DOA) during hens’ transport
19 PA 19 Influence of handling on injuries during hen transport
20 PA 20 Glossy objects motivate the hens to redirect unwanted feather pecking behaviour.
21 PA 21 Maximise range behaviour and foraging by planting cover crops
22 PA 22 Positive effects of oats in the laying hen diet
23 PA 23 The benefits of providing roughage to laying hens
24 PA 24 Laying hens want to dust bath in peat
25 PA 25 The shade created by the trees around the farm improves the microclimate.
26 PA 26 Mesh on the floor helps newly placed laying hens adjust to aviary systems.
27 PA 27 Reducing the risk of injury when transferring hens at the end of lay from furnished cages to transport lorries
28 PA 28 Evaluating commercial innovations
29 PA 29 Monitoring of poultry red mite using measuring traps: an easy, cheap and effective method.
30 PA 30 Monitoring poultry red mite allows you to anticipate and optimise treatment.
31 PA 31 Sand may be an easier litter material for wet conditions
32 PA 32 Can sand litter maintain better feather cover?
33 PA 33 Monitoring the impact of feed additives to improve the gut-health of laying hens.
34 PA 34 Maximise ranging behaviour by planting trees
35 PA 35 Methods to reduce predation of free ranging hens
36 PA 36 Recommendations for using alpacas as guardians of free range hens
37 PA 37 Comparison of different ways to measure ammonia levels in the laying hen shed
38 PA 38 Risk assessment of each flock at end-of-lay reduces losses

A full version of the Hennovation Practice abstracts (i.e. end-user materials) listed above can be found here.

Tool for Integrated Pest Management of poultry red mite

We’ve updated our description on poultry red mite, and added a checklist in English as well as a more elaborated description of integrated pest management of poultry red mite, intended to reduce the need for chemical treatments through monitoring of the red-mite population. Descriptions are available in Dutch and in English. For more information in Dutch see also here.

Click on the sample checklist below to download a pdf of the whole checklist.

From beak to tail – Mechanisms underlying damaging behaviour in laying hens and pigs (Satellite workshop ISAE-2017)

August 7, 2017 a very nice one-day meeting was held in Aarhus (DK) to discuss feather pecking in laying hens and tail biting in pigs.  The meeting was a joint initiative of FareWellDock and GroupHouseNet. A Skype4business connection made it possible for about 10 external participants to join the meeting in addition to the 60 delegates present in person.


Opening of the meeting, introduction and networking session,
Anna Valros, Sandra Edwards

9:50-11:00 Theme 1: Mechanisms underlying the link between health and damaging behaviour
Invited speakers: Janicke Nordgreen (pigs), Jerine van der Eijk (poultry)

Mini research seminar
≥ Lisette van der Zande: The estimation of genetic effects of tail damage on weaned pigs and its influence on production traits
≥ Anja Brinch Riber: Link between feather pecking and keel bone damage
≥Mirjam Holinger: Does chronic intermittent stress increase tail and ear manipulation in pigs?
≥Laura Boyle: The effect of removing antibiotics from the diets of weaner pigs on performance of ear and tail biting behaviours and associated lesions

11:00-11:20 Coffee/tea break
11:20-12:20 Theme 1 continues: Group and plenary discussion, Anna Valros
12:20-13:20 Lunch break
13:20-14:30 Theme 2: Predisposing factors for damaging behaviour during early development
Invited speakers: Jo Edgar (poultry) and Armelle Prunier (pigs)

Mini research seminar
≥Ute Knierim: A tool to work on risk factors during rearing for feather pecking in laying hens
≥Elske de Haas, Margrethe Brantsæter & Fernanda Machado Tahamtani: Disrupting availability of floor substrate in the first weeks of life influences feather pecking during rearing and lay – a Dutch and Norwegian approach
≥Anouschka Middelkoop: Effect of early feeding on the behavioural development of piglets around weaning
≥Irene Camerlink: The crooked mind of the commercial pig: can we rectify abnormal biting behaviour by early and later life conditions?

14:30-14:50 Coffee/tea break
14:50-15:50 Theme 2 continues: Group and plenary discussion, Sandra Edwards
15:50 Closing of workshop

Some tweets from the workshop:

Acute lethal aggression is increasingly seen in commercial pig farming, as is excessive neonatal aggression (Irene Camerlink)

About 50 studies link (in-)adequate foraging to injurious feather pecking in poultry (Jo Edgar).

Maternal care strongly influences chick behavioural development (Jo Edgar)

Study: Lots of ear biting on Irish pig farms, up to 50% of pigs; Follow up: Antibiotic use may play a role (both causing & treating) (Laura Boyle).

Feather pecking appears to be linked to keel bone damage (Anja Brinch Riber).

Feather pecking is associated with elevated specific immune response (Jerine van der Eijk).

Tipping bucket model of feather pecking
Tipping bucket model of feather pecking (modified after Bracke et al. 2012 model for tail biting).