By Debbie James

Egg producers are reporting less severe feather pecking (SFP) among hens since making key management and environmental changes to housing and ranges.

The farmers have been working with the Laying Hen Welfare Forum (LHWF) to find solutions to maintaining feather cover amid the prospect of a beak trimming ban in the UK within five years.

LHWF chairman Andrew Joret warns that it is not an option for farmers to do nothing to reduce levels of feather pecking in their own flocks.

Holland, Germany, Sweden and Austria had outlawed beak trimming and, despite notable difference between egg production in those countries and the UK, notably their smaller flock sizes and higher profitability, pressure is being applied for a UK ban.

“A ban is coming, in my opinion we have five years at most to prepare for this,’’ said Mr Joret.

Don’t let litter become compacted

All hens need regular dust baths and, if prevented because litter is capped, they become distressed.

Good drainage is important – stone placed just outside the shed will wipe hens’ feet and help to stop them bringing wet mud into the house.

Remove capped litter in the house and replenish with straw or shavings.

The provision of verandas or winter gardens can act as a useful halfway house between the range and the shed, reducing the amount of mud being carried in on the hens’ feet.

Feed a balanced diet high in fibre

Diets low in fibre, amino acids and protein are linked to SFP.

Feed high in fibre will slow the passage of food through the gut allowing birds to feel fuller for longer, but this comes at a cost – at current prices increasing fibre content by 1 per cent can add £3/tonne to feed costs.

During lay, the risk of SFP can be greatly increased by feeding pelleted diets that are eaten quickly and by the provision of limited foraging opportunities; a mash allows hens to spend more time eating and increases the feeling of satiety, advised LHWF project officer Paula Baker.

Use lighting to encourage birds to move around housing

To encourage birds onto the slatted tier or aviary at night, gradually dim lights on the scratch area then turn lights off on the system.

Avoid shafts of sunlight and situations where there is a strong beam of light as this will force hens into the darker areas and can cause overcrowding, smothering and floor eggs.

Hens have been seen to peck if the beam of light is directly on the plumage of other birds.

Provide foraging and pecking enrichments, and alternate these

These can range from pecking blocks to compressed bales of lucerne.

Blue rope is also a popular enrichment among hens while pecking blocks have the double benefit blunting the beak.

Blocks can quickly be destroyed and need replacing frequently; working out where to place them in houses can also be a challenge.

Lucerne bales provide hens with foraging material and are also a source of fibre but ensure they are purchased from a good source to avoid introducing dusty material.

Chop length needs to be short as some hens will gorge on lucerne or hay and if the chop is long it may cause problems with digestion.

Consider range enhancements

These can include tree cover and artificial shelters – moving and strategically placing shelters nearer to popholes will encourage birds out.

As the birds become more confident, the shelters can be moved further out onto the range.

Hens need consistency in their day to day management

If a feeder breaks down and isn’t repaired swiftly hens will quickly become agitated, in fact any changes to their day to day routine can be stressors.

Keep the routine as consistent as possible and make staff aware of the need for consistency in their own behaviours.

“If you have weekend workers that don’t behave the same way as the usual stockpeople that can upset birds,’’ said Mr Joret.

Provide ramps

Side ramps help birds better utilise space when they are moving up and down the system.

“They encourage a nice flow of bird movement instead of having birds jumping up and down the tiers,’’ says Miss Baker.