An Australian study being carried out by Geoff Hitch at the University of New England and Dr. Caroline Lee at CSIRO will examine the influence of differing stocking densities on free-range space utilization, the welfare and productivity of laying hens, and the effect of early life interventions on adaptability of free-range laying hens to later life environmental stressors, range utilization and choice feeding.
The project will first examine three stocking densities: 2,000, 10,000 and 200,000 birds per hectare. The trial will be replicated and conducted over a six-month period (to 40 weeks of lay). The indoor stocking density of all birds will be 12 birds/m2.
To assess bird welfare, the project will employ behavioral tests, record bird behaviors with video cameras and audio equipment, and monitor stress hormones in the birds. In addition, production indicators, such as feather scores, weight change during the experiment, egg production and egg quality will be measured.
The project will also examine the effect of genotype and early life interventions on adaptation, welfare and utilization of the range. In addition, the effect of range-feeding with insects on performance and nutrient intake will be examined.
The research will build on previous work to provide scientific evidence as to whether stocking density is important to layer welfare in free-range systems. It will also examine how environmental enrichment may interact with stocking density impacts on welfare status, in and out of the shed.
“First and foremost, the benefit of this work is to ensure industry best practice for free-range systems, and secondly, the development of systems where industry can guarantee that products are produced under the best-practice range conditions,” said Hitch.
“Effects on productivity are unknown, although reduction in cannibalism, and identification of key welfare indices, could reduce mortality and morbidity enough to improve overall feed and egg production efficiency. This work should also provide some scientific data that can inform development of future policy relating to free-range management.”