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Gentler Hens 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 lines.
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.