The conditions under which laying hens are kept remain a major animal welfare concern. Egg production is one of the most intensive forms of animal production and the number of animals involved is very high. The LayWel project, funded via the European Commission’s S ixth Framework Programme and national funding from several EU countries, studied the welfare implications of the different poultry farming systems.
The EU-Directive 1999/74/EC outlines the three different categories of farming systems that are allowed for housing laying hens, namely unenriched cages, alternative systems and enriched cages. The provisions of the Directive are being progressively implemented since 2002 and have introduced technical changes to the current husbandry systems. Since there is only limited practical experience with production in enriched cages, and since other systems have been modified over time, knowledge of the welfare implications of the different poultry farming systems needs to be updated.
Welfare of laying hens in different production systems
With the exception of conventional cages, the LayWel project concludes that all production systems for laying hens have the potential to provide satisfactory welfare for laying hens. However, this potential is not always achieved in practice because of numerous factors, acting singly or together, such as management, climate, house design and the fact that different breeds of bird respond differently.
All cage systems tend to provide a more hygienic environment with simpler management and a low risk of parasitic disease. For conventional cages however, experts believe that the severe spatial restriction leads to behavioural limitations and disuse osteoporosis that outweigh these advantages.
The LayWel project highlighted two risks of poor welfare on a flock basis in all systems for which genetic selection may be a means for improvement.
Damaging pecking and cannibalism can be observed with larger group sizes. As some existing genotypes, mainly white-feathered ones, show a lower tendency for damaging pecking, greater emphasis should be placed on selecting genotypes with reduced feather-pecking tendencies for use in alternative housing systems for laying hens.
In addition, all laying hens are at high risk from sustaining fractures both during the laying period and when houses are depopulated. Recent studies have shown that bone strength can be improved in laying hens by selection over only one or two generations without a large decrease in productivity.
New scoring system to assess the welfare of laying hens
The LayWel photographic scoring system provides a good picture of the integument and health of birds in research and in commercial production. The system is easy to use by scorers of different background e.g. scientists, welfare inspectors, administrators, breeders and producer organisations. It is language independent, applicable in any situation and supported by the major institutes working on the welfare of laying hens. This makes this system unique and gives it the potential to be the first world-wide standard.
Manual for self assessment of welfare of laying hens on the farm
A manual was produced that enables farmers to monitor the welfare status of their birds in an objective way no matter what the housing system. It can also be used by extension personnel. The manual provides tools to measure various welfare indicators and it stimulates farmers to monitor welfare of their birds on a frequent basis. It also indicates ways to improve welfare. By using the manual, farmers will be more aware of the welfare of their birds and the effect of their management on it.
A prototype of the manual is ready – testing on commercial farms and modification for non-anglophone countries is needed.
A database on welfare
A database was set up to collect all research data both from experimental farms and commercial units. The database has already showed great value in the LayWel project. However, although even new and unpublished data were added to the database, there remained the feeling that data were missing for some systems, especially large furnished cages, which may change some of the conclusions.
As the demand for up-to-date figures remains real and new data are frequently produced, funding is sought to keep the database updated.
Welfare implications of changes in production systems for laying hens
Project coordinator: Prof. Dr. H.J. Blokhuis
Animal Sciences Group -
Wageningen University and Research Centre
P.O. Box 65
8200 AB Lelystad
Telephone: + 31 320 238195
Fax: + 31 320 238050
Website : http://www.laywel.eu