Access to an outdoor range has many potential benefits for laying hens but range use can be poor due to factors only partly understood. Techniques to monitor individual range use within commercial flocks are crucial to increase our understanding of these factors. Direct observation of individual range use is difficult and time-consuming, and automatic monitoring currently relies on equipment that is difficult to use in an on-farm setting without itself influencing range use. We evaluated the performance of a novel small, light, and readily portable light-based monitoring system by validating its output against direct observations. Six commercial houses (2000 hens/house) and their adjacent ranges were used, three of which were equipped with more structures on the range than the others (to determine whether cover would influence monitoring accuracy). In each house 14 hens were equipped with light monitoring devices for 5 discrete monitoring cycles of 7-8 consecutive days (at 20, 26, 32, 36 and 41 weeks of age). Light levels were determined each minute: if the reading on the hen-mounted device exceeded indoor light levels the hen was classified as outside. Focal hens were observed directly for 5 minutes/hen/week. Accuracy (% of samples where monitoring and direct observations were in agreement) was high both for ranges with more and with fewer structures, although slightly better for the latter (92 vs. 96% ± 1 SEM, F1,19=5.2, P=0.034). Furthermore, accuracy increased over time (89, 94, 95, 98% ± 1 SEM for observations at 26, 32, 36 and 41 weeks, respectively, F3,19=3.2, P=0.047), probably due to progressively reduced indoor light levels resulting from partial closing of ventilation openings to sustain indoor temperature. Light-based monitoring was sufficiently accurate to indicate a tendency for a greater percentage of monitored time spent outside when more range structures were provided (more: 67%, fewer: 56%, SEM: 4, χ21=2.9, P=0.089). Furthermore, clear and relatively consistent individual differences were detected. Individuals that were caught outside at the start of the experiment ranged more throughout its duration (caught outside: 72%, caught inside 51%, SEM: 4, χ21=10.0, P=0.002), and individual range use was correlated between monitoring cycles (for adjacent monitoring cycles: rs2=0.5-0.7, P<0.0001). This emphasizes the importance of studying range use on an individual level. In conclusion, our light-based monitoring system can assess individual range use accurately (although accuracy was affected by house characteristics to some extent) and was used to show that both cover availability and individual characteristics affected range use.
- range use
- automatic monitoring