The effect of rearing environment on feather pecking in young and adult laying hens

Anne Marie Gilani*, Toby G. Knowles, Christine J. Nicol

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

59 Citations (Scopus)

Abstract

Although the rearing period has an important influence on the development of feather pecking in laying hens, few studies have quantified the risk factors operating on commercial farms during this time and identified their long-term impact. Our aim was to conduct a longitudinal study to investigate the effect of rearing environment on feather pecking in young and adult laying hens. Thirty-four flocks from 29 rearing farms were recruited and visited at the beginning, middle and end of the rearing period and once at lay (35 weeks). Twelve flocks were beak trimmed. Information on rearing environment was used to create models predicting feather pecking and plumage damage during rear and lay, using the multilevel statistical software MLwiN 2.25. Across all flocks, gentle feather pecking (GFP) was observed during 94% of the visits at both rear and lay, at 1.3 and 1.0 bouts/bird/h respectively. Severe feather pecking (SFP) was observed during 27% of the visits during rear and during 65% of the visits at lay, with a mean rate of 0.4 pecks/bird/h during rear and 1.9 pecks/bird/h at lay, across all flocks. The mean percentage of the flock with missing feathers was 12% at 16 weeks and 49% at lay. The mean individual feather score at lay was 21 (range 6-24 (best)). The study confirmed that feather pecking and feather damage occur during the rearing period. Statistical modelling further showed that the percentage of the flock with missing feathers was significantly lower and individual feather scores significantly higher (better) at lay, in flocks where feather pecking had not started at the end of rear. The three models on the effect of rearing environment on GFP, SFP and the percentage of the flock with missing feathers during rear contained 21 significant variables. Approximately a third of those related to house climate (temperature, humidity, sound, light and dust levels), while another third related to foraging. Foraging itself appeared in all three models, confirming that good foraging is one of the major factors in reducing feather pecking. The four models on the effect of rearing environment on GFP, SFP, the percentage of the flock with missing feathers and individual feather scores at lay contained 17 significant variables and sound level was significant in three of the four. The analysis further indicated that experienced rearing staff was protective against feather pecking at both rear and lay and that feather pecking increased with an increasing number of diet changes during rear.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)54-63
Number of pages10
JournalApplied Animal Behaviour Science
Volume148
Issue number1-2
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 1 Sep 2013

Keywords

  • Feather pecking
  • Laying hens
  • Plumage damage
  • Rearing

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