Adding the right combination of fatty acids to the diets of laying hens can significantly reduce bone breakage during lay, according to researchers at the University of Bristol's School of Veterinary Sciences.

According to one study, adding omega-3 fatty acid to the diet of free-range egg-laying hens resulted in the birds' bones being significantly stronger, with up to 40% fewer breaks.

The project, funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, focused on finding ways to reduce bone breakages in laying hens that contribute to increased food production while remaining conscious of the welfare of the animals. "Laying hens are particularly susceptible to high levels of damage to the keel which result from their relatively poor bone health," said Lindsay Wilkins, research fellow in Food Animal Science at the University of Bristol. "This is an increasing issue as the industry moves towards production systems that allow for more movement and access to outside. While these systems have obvious welfare benefits, they also increase the higher risk of accidents and breakages." 

Dr. Michael Toscano, a research associate on the project, said the idea of adding to chickens' diets could be beneficial to humans consuming the end product, as well. "In addition to benefits to the chicken, omega-3 fatty acids are also beneficial for human health," said Toscano. "One objective of our research has been to produce an egg with fatty acid content that benefits consumers while achieving the same bone strengthening effect in the chicken. Our next challenge is to find the ideal balance of different fatty acids to maximize the hen's welfare while producing more nutritious eggs, resulting in a positive outcome for chickens, producers and consumers."