Beak trimming in turkeys should be retained as a primary welfare measure, as there is no effective alternative to prevent or discourage aggressive pecking.

Research has been carried out on several measures to avoid the need for beak trimming, Johannes Aka from German turkey breeding company Moorgut Kartzfehn told the conference.

“This has produced some interesting areas to investigate more intensively, but up to now there are no real solutions,” he said.

“Looking at behaviour, turkeys are not just big chickens. In chickens, cannibalism and feather pecking is interpreted as a misdirected search for feed. In turkeys this is also the case, but a major part of the problem is caused by aggressiveness.

“Aggressive pecking, especially in males, is often directed at the head and neck, which can lead to serious injuries or mortality.”

In the research, several options were assessed for minimising cannibalism and feather pecking, explained Dr Aka.

For example, an attempt was made to blunt the birds’ beaks by providing abrasive surfaces to remove their sharp edges. The researchers tried to combine abrasion with the feeding process, by placing feed on a concrete floor, inserting rough material or chains into the feeders, or providing pecking blocks. Oat flakes were put on sandpaper discs, or in half pipes with gravel.

“Hopes that the edges would be rounded by mechanical force were disappointing” said Dr Aka. “With the materials used there has been no real difference between these birds and those that didn’t have access to abrasive material.”

Another strategy was to divert the turkeys’ attention from pecking each other, by providing a wide variety of ‘manipulable materials’, which interested the birds to varying degrees. However, even those materials that ware quite effective at keeping the birds busy still didn’t have any positive effect on cannibalism and feather pecking.

High-fibre diets were also used to increase the time spent eating and to increase gut fill, and hence reduce the desire to peck and consume feathers. “Offering hay was the most effective way of giving raw fibre and also seemed to distract the birds’ attention to a certain extent.”

But even this gave no detectable benefit in terms of feather pecking.

Reducing light levels was known to be an effective measure, but wasn’t a practical option in open-sided barns.

With pressure mounting to ban beak trimming in broilers in several member states, there are concerns this could be extended to turkeys.

“We have to keep working on this subject,” concluded Dr Aka.

Focus new schemes on animal-based criteria

New welfare schemes for turkeys should focus on animal-based criteria that can be measured, rather than subjective criteria that are open to interpretation.

Addressing the conference, Werner Bessei from the University of Hohenheim, Germany, said welfare was now dominating discussions between veterinarians, politicians, producers and consumers.

But the real driving force was the retailers, who wanted to protect themselves from militant animal protection groups on the one hand, and benefit from the added value of welfare in their products on the other.

“There is no generally accepted definition of welfare, but with increasing knowledge of the cognitive abilities of animals, including poultry, welfare does not now only comprise the absence of suffering and freedom from hunger, thirst, fear and discomfort.”

The definition of welfare had expanded to include the absence of adverse feelings, and also the experience of positive feelings, he explained.

“While the EU directives and national regulations on animal welfare refer to established scientific knowledge of the animals needs, animal protection organisations and retailers are establishing their own welfare labels based on consumer perception of animal wellness.”

Such protocols had been established for broilers and laying hens, and with the prospect of similar steps being taken in turkeys, it was important to use the right criteria.

Behavioural observations were time-consuming and difficult to interpret, said Prof Bessie. Subjective scores such as “bored” or “happy” may be useful for the producer to identify general problems, but their validity was questionable when applied by external auditors.

It was therefore important to focus on animal-based criteria which could be linked to obvious welfare problems, such as foot pad scores, feather pecking and cannibalism, or leg and gait problems.

Welfare need not jeopardise profits

Welfare and good business do not need to be contradictory, said Anne-Marie Neeteson from Aviagen Turkeys. “If an animal is treated well, and managed with care and good stockmanship, it should cost less in feed and veterinary care.”

As breeders, one of the challenges faced by Aviagen was that welfare meant different things in different global markets, said Dr Neeteson.

But welfare formed a core part of the breeding programme at Aviagen, she continued. “If the needs of the animal are aligned with the welfare requirements, this will ensure the cost implications are manageable.” 

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