Organic Broadcaster

Take holistic approach to poultry welfare in organic system

By Anna Bassett and Jennifer L. Burton, DVM

Good animal welfare is an integral part of organic livestock management. As with soil health and other aspects of organic production, animal welfare is most successfully achieved not by correcting problems piecemeal, but by taking a holistic view: aligning management and environment with the natural tendencies of animals that are a good genetic fit for your organic system.

Consumers buy organic food for a range of reasons. While health benefits and a desire to support environmentally friendly farming top the list, consumers in one survey ranked animal welfare the 4th most important indicator of ethical food production. Another survey found that over a third of consumers placed welfare among the top three reasons they buy organic food. Many respondents in these studies said welfare was more important than flavor, sustainability, environmental impact, or antibiotic use. Since consumer demand and willingness to pay have a bearing on different models and costs of production, we will consider consumers as part of the whole system in which welfare options are weighed.

Consumers who buy organic poultry meat and eggs care about welfare, and they expect the birds that produce these products to have been raised in high welfare systems. Several studies on consumer perceptions of organic poultry production show that the expectations include:

• Birds can engage in natural behaviors.
• Birds have access to sunlight and an outdoor vegetated area.
• Birds are healthy and comfortable.

Natural Behaviors

More than simply satisfying a consumer demand for “natural” products, engagement of poultry in innate behaviors is associated with improved welfare outcomes. It reduces injurious social interactions and stress, thereby increasing net production as well as welfare. Nearly ¾ of consumers support regulation requiring enough space for natural behavior.

Recent research has demonstrated that tightly stocked broilers have an increased risk of Salmonella infection due to reduced immune response from the stress of overcrowding. As the indoor space allowance approaches 1.5 square feet per bird, these effects can be significantly reduced. Laying hens, which interact socially, need at least 1.75 square feet per bird indoors. Overcrowding increases the risk of negative behaviors such as feather pecking.

One researcher noted that “at high stocking density, birds may learn that they cannot avoid being pecked.” This exacerbates stress and immune depression, as well as injury.

Chickens originate from jungle fowl of southern Asia and, regardless of the cross breeding and hybridization of the species, their behavior remains pretty much the same. For a chicken to be free from fear and distress it needs to be able to get up on a perch where it feels “safe.” Research has shown that perching enables subordinate hens to avoid dominant birds and escape unwanted feather pecking or aggression, and gives all birds an opportunity to roost at night. Perching behavior also increases leg bone strength, an advantage in hens that are skeletally weakened by continual egg laying. However, it has been suggested that falling from or colliding with aerial perches may cause keel bone fractures. Further research has demonstrated that well designed perches (not too close together, not too high, not too many in the house) can mitigate the risk of keel bone fractures. Providing low perches in the rearing phase allows birds to become accustomed to using them without injury.

Chickens’ jungle fowl ancestors spent most of their time actively foraging and feeding in a natural woodland habitat. Manipulable litter and forage materials provide an outlet for these behaviors, and reduce the risk of feather pecking. Given the opportunity, hens also tend to engage regularly in dust bathing, another key natural behavior that allows the hen to maintain her plumage condition.

Hens have been shown to choose access to nesting areas over access to food. Because hens may compete with each other for nest access, providing enough nests is important to allow for natural behavior and to stem aggression.

Outdoor Access

Outdoor access is important for chickens to fulfill their natural behaviors—wild birds will spend up to 50 percent of their day in exploratory behavior, foraging and searching for food. Research has shown that the greater the proportion of the flock that uses the outdoor area, the lower the risk of negative behaviors such as feather pecking. Outdoor access is also a key consumer expectation of organic management.

While wide-open spaces such as pastures with short grass do not provide a habitat that encourages birds to go outside, providing some cover on the range may improve range utilization. Researchers have found that a simple artificial structure like a roofed box with sand in the hen run improved the distribution of the hens such that they were more prepared to venture further from the house. Other studies found that best use of the hen run was associated with cover, trees or hedges in the range area and these studies also demonstrated the risk of feather pecking was reduced and feather damage was minimal when use of the outdoor run was stimulated by provision of natural (trees, hedges, shrubs) and artificial cover.

Based on the exploratory and social behaviors described above, utilization of outdoor space by a significant portion of the flock in a manner that significantly improves welfare is unlikely at space allowances less than 1.5 square feet per bird. In general, the larger the flock the smaller the proportion of birds that go outside. It has been shown that laying hens in larger groups (over 1,000 birds) do not use the run as often as laying hens in smaller groups (up to 500 birds) and that the hens in larger groups tend to remain close to the poultry house. Rearing also plays a role in outdoor space utilization—the earlier pullets are introduced to the range, the more they use the outdoor area later in life.

When given the opportunity, chickens, like other birds, will engage in sunbathing—lying with their wings spread as part of natural parasite control or to absorb vitamin D. It may seem obvious, but research has shown that full sunbathing behavior is only shown in direct sunlight and not in artificial light. Other studies have looked at natural and artificial light and their effects on bird behavior and welfare. While provision of natural light per se may not guarantee better welfare, it has been demonstrated that the quality and intensity of natural light can meet the birds’ needs better than artificial light.

Health and Comfort

Flock mortality rates are one measure of welfare, and European research has shown that mortality of free-ranging birds can vary enormously, but generally exceeds that of indoor meat and layer systems. Studies have identified E. coli, infectious bronchitis, coccidiosis and brachyspira as main disease causes of mortality; predation can also play a large role.

Continued use of the same range areas, particularly when these become denuded, can increase the risk of parasites such as coccidia and gastrointestinal worms affecting the flock. Well-managed pastures where vegetation is maintained and birds are regularly rotated to fresh ground will reduce the problem.

The risk of zoonotic disease is not strictly a welfare issue. Health is a key driver for consumer purchase of organic products, and more than 75 percent of consumers surveyed by the University of Nebraska believe food safety is largely dependent on animal care. Campylobacter infections associated with the consumption of poultry products have increased in recent years and several studies show higher prevalence of Campylobacter in organic broiler flocks than in conventional indoor flocks.

These challenges highlight the importance of a holistic approach to health and welfare. Other health-supporting aspects of organic management such as high-quality feed and low-stress social environment are crucial to maximize the benefits of providing birds with outdoor access.

Feather pecking remains a primary welfare concern for laying hens. Unlike cannibalism, feather pecking is regarded as redirected foraging behavior and not aggression. It is worse in the absence of manipulable material such as litter or forage, and may also be exacerbated by feed deficiencies. Rearing conditions (particularly early access to manipulable material and early introduction to outdoor areas) and various forms of environmental enrichment may help alleviate this problem. Cannibalism may ensue if injurious feather pecking is allowed to progress unchecked; prevention and timely intervention reduce this risk, as does ensuring that the diet is properly balanced for amino acids, minerals and salt.

Beak trimming was instituted in conventional layer production to mitigate severe negative effects associated with pecking and cannibalism. A 2010 review by the American Veterinary Medical Association determined that beak trimming is acutely painful and reduces feeding and grooming effectiveness. Consumer awareness of this and displeasure with the cutting of beaks continues to increase. It may be wise to anticipate increased restrictions on this procedure, as a ban on beak trimming is proposed for 2016 in some European countries.

When beak trimming is used to avoid feather pecking, chronic pain due to neuroma formation can be minimized if no more than 1/3 of the beak (measured from beak tip to nostrils) is removed, and the procedure is performed early—ideally on the first day of life, and not over 10 days of age. Reductions in feeding and grooming effectiveness cannot be avoided, but are minimized when the beak is trimmed evenly. Research suggests that infrared beak trimming tools may yield better outcomes than other cutting devices.

In light of the unavoidable negative welfare impacts of beak trimming, the potential for increased restrictions, and consumer preference, a focus on management of the birds to reduce feather pecking and thus the need to beak trim could provide the best welfare and the most flexibility in organic production.

Genetics and Organic Systems

The importance of animal selection in holistic health and welfare cannot be overstated. Genetics influence growth rates, immune function, and social behavior. Genetic selection of chickens for a better growth rate has led to modification of several behaviors. Birds developed for conventional intensive production tend to stay indoors even when given the opportunity to forage. Slower growing strains have been shown to have strong foraging behavior and spend a lot of time outdoors.

A review of research concludes that slow-growing broiler strains show greater benefit from an organic rearing system and are better able to cope with the restrictions of an organic diet. Slow-growing broiler genotypes have demonstrated lower requirements for proteins than fast-growing broilers. Finally, even when grown slowly under organic conditions, fast-growing birds can suffer from leg abnormalities and lameness, with high culling and mortality rates similar to conventional birds.

The welfare of organic poultry depends on a number of interrelated factors including animal selection, rearing conditions, size and arrangement of housing and outdoor areas. A comprehensive understanding of relationships between behavior and welfare, and of how management factors can influence behavior, may help identify the best options for those wishing to address a specific welfare concern. Organic production inherently considers interactions between complex systems, and management for excellent welfare is a natural fit for the organic approach to meat and egg production.


Anna Bassett is the Lead Technical Advisor for Animal Welfare Approved, a food label for meat and dairy products that come from farm animals raised to the highest animal welfare and environmental standards. Jennifer L. Burton, DVM, is an Animal Care Specialist with Organic Valley/CROPP Cooperative.

From the January | February 2015 Issue

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