Germany, England and the Netherlands likely to face beak trimming bans

Bans on beak trimming layers and pullets are set to begin in England and the German state of Lower Saxony on January 1, 2016, and the Netherlands in September of 2018. These bans may negatively impact bird welfare and increase the cost of producing eggs.

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Upcoming beak trimming bans in several EU countries may negatively impact bird welfare and increase the cost of producing eggs.
Upcoming beak trimming bans in several EU countries may negatively impact bird welfare and increase the cost of producing eggs.

Certain animal husbandry practices like spur removal from roosters, toenail or claw trimming in turkeys and broiler breeders, snood removal in turkeys, dubbing of combs and wattles in chickens and beak trimming in both turkeys and chickens are referred to by some animal rights advocates as mutilations. The European Union's Welfare of Laying Hens Directive allows beak trimming of poultry up to 10 days of age. EU member states must implement at least the minimum requirements of a directive, but they can choose to go further than the minimum requirements. Animal rights activists have pressed the governments of EU countries to ban all mutilations of poultry and livestock, and their efforts have resulted in some major poultry-producing countries in Europe enacting bans on beak trimming and some other practices.

UK ban in 2016

At the present time in the United Kingdom, poultry can only be infrared beak trimmed on the day of hatch. Beak trimming is scheduled to be banned entirely on January 1, 2016. Andrew Joret, technical director, Noble Foods, and chairmen of the British Egg Industry Council, said that a review of the impact of beak trimming will take place in 2015. "To inform the review, there is a Beak Trimming Action Group consisting of industry, academia, welfare NGO's [non-governmental organizations] as well as breeders and animal nutritionists," he said. "There are two pieces of research on non-beak trimmed flocks being undertaken, the results of which will also inform the review. Scotland's Rural College is conducting trials on non-trimmed birds in enriched colony systems, and Bristol University is conducting trials on free-range flocks."  

Over half of the laying hens in the UK are kept cage free, and many of these are free range. Joret reports that there have been some problems getting producers to sign up for the free-range trial since the government funding is only for the monitoring of the flocks. The lack of a financial guarantee for producers if things go wrong has served as a disincentive for getting involved. Joret said that most of the egg producers that volunteered to participate have small flocks and are not representative of typical free-range flocks in the UK. The British Egg Industry Council has agreed to underwrite three 16,000-hen-flocks in order to get some scale into the exercise.

Lower Saxony ban in 2016

The secretary of agriculture in the German state of Lower Saxony has announced that beak trimming of all poultry will be prohibited in this state beginning January 1, 2016. Dr. Hans-Wilhelm Windhorst, retired department head, University of Vechta, and current analyst for the International Egg Commission, said, "It can be expected that within a short time all other states [in Germany] will follow this directive. But there is research under way that shows that it will be almost impossible to grow male turkeys without beak trimming." He said that it is still an open question whether or not an exception will be made from the directive for turkeys.

The Netherlands ban in 2018

Beginning in 2015, the Netherlands will institute a ban on spur removal from roosters as well as comb dubbing in brown roosters. All types of poultry beak trimming, even infrared trimming done to layer chicks on day of hatch, will be prohibited in the Netherlands starting in September of 2018. The removal of the rear toes in roosters will be banned by September 2021.

Over 60 percent of laying hens in the Netherlands are kept in cage-free barn systems. Conventional cages are no longer used in the Netherlands, but an estimated 15 percent of hens are housed in enriched colony cages, with a similar amount being raised free range.

Economic impact

Dr. Peter van Horne, senior farm economist, Agricultural Economics Research Institute, Wageningen, the Netherlands, said that not beak trimming layers can lead to additional feed intake and higher mortality. "The problem is that there is a wide range in possible consequences between flocks and farms," he said. "As an economist, I always say that beak trimming is a kind of insurance. I calculated that on average, based on an additional 3 grams of feed per hen per day and 2 percent more mortality for hens not beak trimmed minus the cost for beak trimming, the net additional costs are 15 eurocents [$0.20] per hen, per year." He said that the results for individual flocks may vary widely, because flocks with bad picking problems can have much higher mortality rates.

Impact on trade

Van Horne said that another negative consequence of the beak trimming ban in the Netherlands will be the impact on the export of live birds. The Netherlands exports a large number of day-old layer chicks and pullets to other EU and also non-EU countries. These birds have been beak trimmed in the hatchery using infrared treatment, and van Horne said that customers may look elsewhere for birds when they can no longer be beak trimmed in the Netherlands.

Joret expressed a similar concern that the UK's breeding and hatchery industry might move to nearby EU countries that are not planning to ban beak trimming. He said that the UK might even start importing beak-trimmed chicks since the procedure would be banned in the UK, but there is no ban on importing poultry that are already beak trimmed.

Thea Fiks-Van Niekerk, senior research leader for the LayWel project, Wageningen, the Netherlands, said that the beak trimming ban could deal a fatal blow to the Netherlands small turkey industry. Turkeys perform poorly if they are not beak trimmed, particularly the toms. She explained that the Netherlands last turkey processing plant closed years ago, and that the remaining turkey growers are competing with producers in other countries for shackle time. "By 2018, turkey farmers will probably switch to another species if no solution is available," she said. "And as they are with only a small number, they don't have much money for research."

Managing layers without beak trimming

In organic egg production systems in the Netherlands, beak trimming has not been allowed for several years. According to van Niekerk, discontinuing beak trimming was a major problem for organic producers initially, but she said that they are able to keep mortality at "a reasonable level" now, and the feather cover is much better than it was before. She said that producers have improved the rearing and the feeding, which she believes are important factors to prevent excessive pecking.

Based on the organic egg producers' experiences, van Niekerk said that proper management in the pullet house will play an important role for all egg producers after the beak trimming ban goes into effect. She said that some farmers are keeping untrimmed flocks of hens now, just to get experience before the ban. "I expect that by 2018 there will be quite a bit of experience with large farms with untreated [not beak trimmed] hens. But there is no 100 percent guarantee, so every now and then a disaster will occur," she said.

Genetics and strain differences

Just as egg layer primary breeders have been placing their genetic lines in a variety of housing systems to make sure they are selecting for birds that are adaptive to many environments, they are also housing some birds without beak treatment to inform selection decisions. These selection programs may ultimately help to close the performance gap between flocks that are beak trimmed and those that aren't. In the meantime, egg producers have tried to find which of today's strains of layers adapt best without beak trimming in their housing systems.

In the Netherlands, van Niekerk said that organic producers have been looking for strains that cause the least pecking damage to each other, and that some strains have been favored for a while, but that no strain is the clear-cut choice for flocks that aren't beak trimmed. Based on the UK experience, Joret said, "I think the industry view is that non-beak trimming would be more of a problem in free-range flocks than in enriched colonies just because of the relative group sizes. There is no clear view on any particular breed which is more suitable for not beak trimming other than the generalization that white egg strains are probably better suited to not trimming. The UK is, however, resolutely a brown egg market."

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