8 management tips to help prevent severe feather pecking

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

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

It has been trialling different management interventions on 29 flocks to find the most effective ways of keeping feather cover in top condition.

See also: 4 scientific advances poultry farmers should watch out for

LHWF chairman Andrew Joret warns farmers, that doing nothing to reduce levels of feather pecking in their flocks – in readiness for a ban – is not an option.

Holland, Germany, Sweden and Austria have outlawed beak trimming, and despite differences between egg production in those countries and the UK – such as their smaller flock sizes and higher profitability – pressure is being applied for a ban in the UK.

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

“We need to work out ways of keeping birds well-feathered, and if we can, eventually do that without beak trimming.”

Ultimately, every farmer will need a feather cover action plan. There are several measures the industry can adopt to help reach that goal.

What triggers severe feather pecking?

Asked what they considered to be the primary causes of severe feather pecking, farmers identified these key factors:

  • Red mite infestation When birds are infested they start pecking each other
  • Financial pressures If a business isn’t making a profit there is no money to make positive changes
  • Poor weather Very wet conditions in recent months have heightened issues with litter capping
  • Egg size Large eggs can cause prolapses, which leads to vent pecking and cannibalism. Farmers called on retailers to introduce a bigger price differential between medium and large eggs to encourage price-sensitive consumers toward lower cost options

1. Litter management

Avoid litter becoming compacted. Farmers working with the LHWF found this to be one of the most important factors in lowering rates of injurious pecking.

Litter must also be friable. All hens need regular dust baths; if litter is capped, or wet, this becomes impossible and they become distressed.

In free-range systems, concentrate on the litter around popholes. Good drainage is essential – stones 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 to prevent it fermenting.

To prevent compaction, get hens outdoors ranging as soon as possible once popholes are open.

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

This extra area can also give birds more room to perform their natural behaviours.

2. Feed a balanced, high-fibre diet 

Diets low in fibre, amino acids and protein are linked to severe feather pecking. Feather eating is one way that birds can obtain additional fibre in their diets, according to LHWF project officer, Paula Baker.

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% can add £3/t to feed costs.

During lay, the risk of severe feather pecking 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 feeding and increases the feeling of satiety.

3. Use lighting to promote movement

To encourage birds on to 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. Make sure lighting is the correct lux and colour frequency for moving birds around. 

4. Provide enrichments

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

Blue rope is also a popular enrichment among hens. They not only play and pull at it, but also preen themselves with the thin strands.

Pecking blocks give the double benefit of having a blunting effect on 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 reputable 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.

5. 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 on to the range.

6. Be consist in 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 to a strict routine as much as possible, and make staff aware of the need for consistency in their own behaviour.

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

Watching and listening to the birds is a crucial management tool – it will be evident if a flock isn’t happy.

7. Provide ramps

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

“Ramps give them access, and they use them very well,’’ says Miss Baker. “They encourage a nice flow of bird movement, instead of having birds jumping up and down the tiers.”

Ramps are bespoke to each system and can be a low-cost addition – some of the LHWF project farmers have made their own.

8. Review your breed type

Some breeds are more prone to pecking. The variations are often not vast, but they can make a difference. Speak to your representative at the supply hatching company to request visits to farms with specific breeds.

Although geneticists are making good progress in trait selection, this is not the case for the feather pecking trait, because its heritability is very low.

“It is difficult to change behavioural traits that lead to cannibalism, because to study and measure it involves putting the birds under stress,” explains Mr Joret.

What next for the welfare project?

The LHWF collaboration, funded by the European Innovation Project, is due to end in April 2020. However, it has been so successful that further funding will be found to keep it going.

The next phase will concentrate on how the work done with the 29 project farmers, which included colony, barn aviary, free range and organic systems, can be applied on all UK egg farms.

This article is based on a workshop held by the Midlands Free Range Discussion Group.

For more information about the LHWF