Best practices for poultry handling regarding welfare

A good animal welfare program relies upon the people executing the everyday tasks at each phase of the process. Without proper training and management the quality of life of the animal, and ultimately profitability, will suffer.

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Transportation from the farm to processing can be the most difficult time for animal welfare. Special attention to heat and hydration is needed during this phase. (DelmasLehman | iStockPhoto.com)
Transportation from the farm to processing can be the most difficult time for animal welfare. Special attention to heat and hydration is needed during this phase. (DelmasLehman | iStockPhoto.com)

A good animal welfare program relies upon the people executing the everyday tasks at each phase of the process. Without proper training and management the quality of life of the animal, and ultimately profitability, will suffer.

While it may require more attention and resources, Dallas Wynn, senior manager of animal wellbeing at Tyson Foods Inc., said doing right by the animal leads to greater performance and a better product. Wynn shared his experience and advice on proper live poultry handling as part of the North American Meat Institute’s Animal Care and Handling Conference in Kansas City, Missouri, on October 18, 2018.

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Dallas Wynn, Tyson Foods | Photo by Austin Alonzo

Wynn said chickens and turkeys are livestock meant to be eaten, but they should be treated with care and respect nevertheless. Anyone handling a live animal must consider the world from the animal’s perspective and avoid putting it in a harmful situation.

There are some absolutes in handling: Animals should not be dropped from an excessive height relative to the size of their body, and they should never be thrown, hit or kicked. This is never acceptable.

In the hatchery

Chicks, or poults, are delicate and should be handled lightly. Wynn recommended picking them up with a scooping motion and using care to avoid damage to wings and legs. Birds must not be dropped more than 12 inches. The animals are only three inches tall, so drops from greater heights can cause internal damage. Check for any places where machinery could cause injury to the bird and repair any equipment that may cause harm immediately.

If birds are not healthy enough to go to the farm, they must be euthanized humanely using methods such as rapid maceration or air displacement with carbon dioxide gas.

As birds are stacked in baskets before transportation, workers need to be mindful of the heat generated inside the basket and set ventilation and temperature levels to a place that’s comfortable for the animals.

The majority of hatcheries now use climate-controlled trailers for transportation. Wynn said these trailers should be treated like the sophisticated devices they are. Proper preventative maintenance and monitoring of systems is necessary for optimum performance. Drivers should be considered animal caretakers, as well as drivers, when they are hauling livestock. Moreover, emergency plans should be in place in case there is ever an accident during transport.

On the farm

Once the birds arrive, they should be placed starting from the back of the barn and moving toward the entrance. This prevents stepping on the birds. Boxes should be tipped and the birds should not be dropped more than 12 inches from the ground. Bedding should be as flat as possible because the small animals may have trouble moving around and accessing food and water if they have to climb and struggle around in uneven bedding. Once the chicks are placed, anyone moving around in the barn should shuffle step to avoid stepping on the small birds.

When the birds are older, sometimes they must be weighed. A broiler bird should be lifted by both legs with a single hand holding each leg. Breeders, particularly males, may need to be handled by the wings in order to avoid damaging reproductive organs. Turkeys, due to their size, may need to be handled either by both legs, by both wings at the shoulder or by a combination of a leg and a wing.

Some birds die and some must be culled. Wynn said it’s imperative these animals are handled with dignity. The animal is dead or dying, but if they are mistreated by being tossed, hit or kicked, that creates both a bad perception for how the industry cares for animals and disrespects a living creature. If an animal must be euthanized, then cervical dislocation is the appropriate method.

Catching and transport

Moving the birds from the house to the slaughter plant can be one of the most challenging times for the animal. Welfare, again, comes down to the people executing the tasks and the amount of both attention to detail and training they possess.

Before animals are loaded, Wynn said the transport modules should be inspected. The coops can be damaged by regular use, so they must be looked over for loose wires, sharp edges and other aspects that could harm the birds during transportation. Furthermore, the coops should close securely to prevent birds from falling out during transportation. Losing a bird on the road is the absolute worst thing for both welfare and for public perception of the industry, he said.

When loading, catchers must consider how many birds can, and should, be placed in a single module. Generally, birds shouldn’t be stacked on top of each other. The other key factor is the heat generated by the birds and the ventilation they will receive during transport. The climate and weather play a huge role in this decision.

Heat stress is a key element of animal welfare during transport, Wynn said. There are ways to keep birds from overheating – by wetting the trailer and using foggers or ventilation fans – while they are loaded, moved and stored at the plant before processing. Those in charge of transport and processing schedules have to consider how long it will take to get the birds loaded and moved to the plant, the temperature and humidity conditions of the day and whether their route will threaten the biosecurity of other production areas.

Before catching begins, any dead birds must be picked up to prevent tripping and respect the birds. Birds should have access to water as long as possible, but feeders and drinkers should be raised before catching, too.

Catchers should avoid catching birds by their wings, which is both ineffective and damaging to the bird’s welfare and the final product. Once the modules are loaded, they should be kept as level as possible and catchers should avoid swinging, tilting or throwing the loaded module.

Drivers, again, need to consider their role in the welfare of the animals and emergency procedures should be in place and known before transport. Wynn said live haul drivers must go directly to the plant once the truck is loaded and avoid any unnecessary stops.

Unloading, holding and hanging

After birds arrive at the plant, Wynn said the modules should be tipped, rather than dumped out, to empty the birds out into the unloading area. Unloading should be conducted to avoid downtime at the plant but to also respect the animals. Birds should not be dropped on top of other birds as they are unloaded. Subdued lighting can help keep the birds calm during this stage.

Birds are not always processed immediately upon arrival. In those instances, trailers are stored in holding sheds that are designed to protect the birds from the elements as much as possible while they wait. National Chicken Council guidelines recommend that no more than 12 hours should pass between catching and slaughter. With this in mind, trailers should be unloaded on a first-in-first-out basis. This is not only an animal welfare issue, he said, but also an important production shrink issue.

The belts that move birds from the unloading area to the hanging area should be inspected to avoid any pinch points or areas where one bird may be trapped and harmed. Once the birds move into the hanging area, the lighting should be subdued to avoid excitement but bright enough so hangers can work. Hangers should grasp birds by the legs with one leg in each hand. Finally, live birds should not be tossed in the dead-on-arrival bin.

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