Feather pecking in hens leads to cascade of consequences

Exploratory pecking and foraging may be natural behaviors in chickens, by when those natural behaviors are redirected toward flock-mates -- specifically by way of feather pecking -- there can be a “cascade of consequences” for egg producers.

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(Austin Alonzo)
(Austin Alonzo)

Exploratory pecking and foraging may be natural behaviors in chickens, by when those natural behaviors are redirected toward flock-mates -- specifically by way of feather pecking -- there can be a “cascade of consequences” for egg producers.

Leanne Cooley, poultry scientist for Canadian egg producer L.H. Gray and Son, and Dr. Tina Widowski, Egg Farmers of Canada Research Chair in Poultry Welfare and University of Guelph professor, shared insights on feather pecking and how it can impact egg producers during the webinar, “Managing Pecking Behavior in Laying Hens,” hosted by Protekta on March 17.

Widowski pointed out that pecking is a natural behavior of hens, which begins while they are in the egg and peck their way out of the shell. Shortly afterwards, they begin to peck to forage or find food. Pecking also becomes an exploratory behavior.

In modern housing systems, there is no need to search for food, Widowski said. So as a substitute for foraging, pecking tendencies can be redirected to other hens.

Feather pecking does occur in all types of housing systems, Widowski said, and feather-pecking behaviors increase as a hen ages. Foraging options, scratch areas and other enrichments for laying hens can reduce feather pecking, she said, but it doesn’t necessarily eliminate the problem, she said. Also, while beak trimming can minimize the damages caused by feather pecking, it does not keep hens from pecking, Widowski said.

Once farm managers notice the loss of feathers as a result of feather pecking, they will need to start making decisions, Cooley said.

Adjustments to feed

As hens lose feathers, they become cooler. And when that happens, they will eat more to compensate.

“They’re eating for maintenance, they’re eating for thermal regulation, and they’re eating for production,” she said.

"If we choose to do nothing with our feed density, they can start overconsuming protein and other nutrients, which can have effects on the egg size profile of the flock becoming larger than we like," she said.

And if hens overconsume, mineral imbalances can happen.

Cooley also said if egg producers choose to increase the energy density of the feed, that comes at a cost as well.

Increasing barn temperature

Another option, and a very common one, is looking to increase the barn’s temperature to compensate for the feather loss, Cooley said.

Making adjustments to ventilation can have consequences because in certain climates that means that relative humidity increases. Other problems with changes in temperature and ventilation could include increased dust, the possibility of more ammonia in the environment, and more litter moisture. More litter moisture can bring on a “cascade in itself,” Cooley added, as there is an increased risk for Salmonella, E. coli, coccidiosis and worms.

Ventilation adjustments can also mean dirtier birds and dirtier eggs.

Cooley said significant changes in temperature or ventilation can also make work more unpleasant for the workers in the barns. It might also bring changes in the disposition of the hens, Cooley said, which could actually cause increased pecking.

“All these negative things that come along sometimes with just increasing barn temperature can actually increase pecking. So we’re doing it to try to compensate for feather loss, and we’re inadvertently actually causing pecking at times with these stressors and these changes in the environment,” said Cooley.

Changes in lighting

Another option to reduce pecking could be manipulating the intensity of the light in the barns.

But making such changes in lighting, like with higher barn temperatures, can lead to more worker dissatisfaction.

Another drawback, Cooley said, as light intensity is decreased, particularly in more complex environments, you could see more out-of-nest-laid eggs. That can be both an economic issue and a food safety issue. In some markets, out-of-nest eggs have to be discarded. There are also more losses because as eggs lay on the floor, the odds of breakage are greater.

Changes to light intensity may also lead to more light flickers or strobing. When that happens, birds move less, there could be more hiding, and the hens could lose weight because they are eating or drinking less. These “unthrifty birds” will be apt to not lay as many eggs, and can actually become targets for pecking, said Cooley.

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