for Poultry Production
By Don Comis
December 30, 2003
A team of
Agricultural Research Service and
Purdue University animal scientists and
behavioralists at West Lafayette, Ind., is working on improvements in humane
treatment of poultry, while keeping the business bottom line in mind.
Heng Wei Cheng, in the ARS Livestock Behavior Research Unit at
West Lafayette, and Purdue animal scientist William M. Muir are part of this
research team dealing with issues such as housing environment for
poultry--primarily the type and size of cages--and some routine practices such
as beak trimming and induced molting.
Many of their approaches center around the less aggressive birds they are
breeding. Using group selection, they put 12 sibling chicks in cages without
trimming their beaks, a procedure used to minimize pecking injuries. After 58
weeks, the scientists select chickens from those cages that have had the lowest
mortality rates from pecking and the highest egg production. The gentle birds
have a 1.3 percent mortality rate from pecking, far lower than commercial
Traditionally, breeding chickens are kept in individual cages and selected
for egg production; the new approach also selects for social skills useful for
living in commercial egg layer cages. The goal is to select gentle birds that
do not need their beaks trimmed. Cheng and colleagues are also researching the
most humane way to trim beaks.
Cheng and Purdue scientist Scotti Hester are researching poultry housing
alternatives, such as cages with perches and boxes for sand-bathing and
nesting. Chickens grow stronger bones by using perches. Cheng is also
researching alternatives to induced molting, the practice of withholding food
from hens to cause a rest in egg laying, which results in more and bigger eggs
in months to come.
ARS is the U.S. Department of
Agriculture's chief scientific research agency.