Why welfare is integral to good poultry management

Learn how poultry welfare is essential to good broiler management from the rearing house to stunning and slaughter.

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Good litter management can contribute to healthy footpads, keep air quality high and protect birds from cold floors. | Mafoto, Dreamstime
Good litter management can contribute to healthy footpads, keep air quality high and protect birds from cold floors. | Mafoto, Dreamstime

During the webinar, “Global Focus on Poultry Welfare,” hosted by WATT Global Media and sponsored by Cobb-Vantress, experts stressed that good flock management, health and welfare are inseparable. Welfare is not a separate set of management practices; it is ensuring that all management practices are performed correctly and in a timely manner.

Large companies increasingly have their own poultry welfare standards, but they may also be subjected to audits from suppliers that have their own welfare criteria, and it is essential that any standards to which producers adhere are fully understood.

Attendees heard from Dr. Karen Christensen, associate professor and extension manager, University of Arkansas, that it is not enough to be familiar with welfare standards, be they internal or external. Producers must have a deep understanding of why standards are in place and their impact on broiler welfare. It is only by understanding expectations, and what is behind them, that producers will remain committed to improving welfare on-farm.

Alongside strict adherence, rapid reactions when issues emerge is as important as, given ever-shorter rearing periods, even losing a few hours can affect performance.

Every detail must be managed 24 hours a day, but the first 14 days of a broiler’s life are critically important. These first two weeks can represent 20-25 percent of production time.

Management best practices

Following management best practices can have a significant effect on welfare, for example ensuring access to fresh feed and water. Maintaining and sanitizing water lines, per company requirements based on flock health status and water quality, will contribute to good welfare, as does ensuring that water and feeding equipment is kept at the proper height, so maximizing access. Simple daily monitoring of water consumption, for example, can alert producers to potential health or equipment issues.

Proper litter management is also critical to broiler welfare. Dry, well-managed litter not only helps to ensure health and welfare, but raises performance through fewer condemnations and higher carcass yield. Well-managed litter promotes footpad health, and keeps air quality high and ammonia levels low. It protects birds from cold floors, and encourages natural behaviors, such as dust bathing.

Plan for the unexpected

Knowing when, and to whom, increased mortality and morbidity should be reported, will ensure that any health problems are tackled quickly, so minimizing any impact on welfare.

All producers should have a regularly revised emergency plan that can be implemented should things go wrong. Staff must fully understand what to do, and need to be regularly updated, particularly when there is staff turnover. It is also worth identifying stakeholders who may be able step in when needed.

Backup systems — for example, for water and generators — must be in place and checked regularly so that they can be used immediately if needed. With a good plan in place, dealing with real disasters can be faster and more efficient.

Additionally, those that work with broilers should understand the basics of bird behavior and what behaviors, social interactions and flock appearance may reveal. The better these behaviors are understood, the more quickly remedial action can be taken if necessary.

Welfare at slaughter

At slaughter, pain and fear needs to be prevented. Birds should not simply be tipped out of their transport containers, as this can result in stress, flapping and injury, which can have a detrimental effect on the end product, explained Jade Spence, technical officer, The Humane Slaughter Association.

Where water bath stunning is used, there are many elements that need to be carefully monitored to ensure welfare.

Ideally, shackles should be tapered to suit a range of broiler leg sizes, and wetted to avoid electrical resistance at the contact point with broilers’ legs. In addition to daily cleaning, shackles should be cleaned at least once a week with acid to remove any scale.

Shackle lines should be as straight as possible, without inclines or dips, and short enough to limit the duration of shackling to no more than 20-60 seconds.

To improve welfare on the shackle line, breast contact strips or support conveyors can be used to reduce struggling and flapping. Breast support technology, however, is still in its infancy, and it is important to ensure that birds are on the conveyor comfortably, with no breathing difficulties, and cannot escape the shackles with one or both legs.

Occupied shackles should be in constant contact with an earthed electrode or rubbing bar to reduce pre-stun shocks and carcass damage.

To further prevent pre-stun shocks, an electrically isolated height-adjustable entry ramp can be employed. This can facilitate a rapid, but gentle, swing of the bird’s head into the electrified water.

The bird’s head must fully enter the water bath as, if not, brain activity will be less profoundly disrupted. Heads should pass within 5 centimeters of the bath’s immersed electrode, which must run for the bath’s entire length for a consistent amount of current during the entire time that birds are in the electrified water.

It is better for bird welfare if electrical frequencies of between 50 and 200 hertz are used, as data modeling suggests that the chance of successful stun reduces progressively as frequency increases, even if the current amplitude is also increased.

An individual bird’s resistance is highly variable relative to other birds of the same type, as well as between breeds and species, and therefore the voltages required to achieve recommended currents may differ significantly between bird types.

After stunning, a bird’s throat should be cut as soon as possible, and the throat muscle must be cut into to sever both carotid arteries. Alternatively, decapitation is an acceptable method for bleeding a stunned bird. Ideally, birds should be bled for 2-3 minutes before further processing.

Gas stunning

Of the large-scale slaughter methods, the electrical water bath, followed by neck cutting, is the most common, but use of gas stunning is increasing, and interest in this method is growing, Spence said.

For gas stunning, the most commonly used gases are carbon dioxide, nitrogen and argon, which are delivered in a variety of ways, at a variety of concentrations, and for a variety of durations.

Exposure to low, gradually increasing, concentrations of carbon dioxide has been suggested by some to be better for poultry welfare, but respiratory effects, such as head shaking and open bill breathing, are still evident, suggesting this method may not be perfect for welfare.

When using tunnel systems that immerse birds directly into a ready-mixed single concentration of gas, the birds should ideally reach that gas concentration as soon as possible, and ideally within 10 seconds to minimize the duration of any discomfort from the CO2 or convulsions.

Within sections of the gas machine where birds are conscious, air humidity should be at least 60 percent to help reduce any negative effects of CO2 on birds’ respiratory tract mucus membranes. Temperature should be as close as possible to ambient.

Visual and audio alarms must be obvious enough to easily alert staff when there is deviation from program settings, and machines can also be programmed to stop loading when gas concentrations are inappropriate for stunning.

Another type of controlled atmosphere stunning has emerged in recent years -- low atmosphere pressure (LAPS) -- which performs a slow, controlled decompression that mimics ascent to high altitude.

LAPS appears to induce loss of consciousness more slowly than gas-induced stunning. Research has shown that birds are unconscious before convulsions begin, which is important from a welfare perspective. However, there are some behaviors with LAPS that are indicative of respiratory effect, such as open bill breathing and head shaking, but these are no more than what would be seen with anoxic or inert gases. However, given that time to loss of consciousness can be longer with LAPS, wherever birds are experiencing these effects for longer needs to be considered.

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