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Research article - Peer-reviewed, 2023

How are they really doing? Animal welfare on organic laying hen farms in terms of health and behaviour

Goransson, L.; Abeyesinghe, S.; Yngvesson, J.; Gunnarsson, S.

Abstract

The present study describes the current welfare situation on commercial organic laying hen farms in Sweden in terms of indoor environment, bird health and behaviour.Organic laying hen farms (n = 11) in Sweden were visited for one day each. The farm visits were performed at the end of lay and involved farmer interviews, indoor environment assessments, behavioural observations and tests and clinical examinations in one flock per farm.In 95% of all human avoidance distance test trials performed, the hens distanced themselves from the observer before the test was completed. Median number of birds per flock approaching during a novel object test (n = 4 trials per flock) was 2 (0-9). These results may indicate a high level of fear of humans and general fearfulness among the hens.Plumage damage was especially prevalent and most severe on the breast and belly, tail and wings, with median prevalence of moderate-severe damage of 96% (84-100), 96% (72-100) and 98% (94-100), respectively. Median prevalence of keel bone deviations was 67% (32-84) with 3% fractures (0-8). Median prevalence of breast skin lesions was 57% (10-74). There was a significant positive association between breast skin lesions and keel bone deviations (P = 0.02) and foot pad hyperkeratosis (P < 0.001). Median prevalence of severe hyperkeratosis was 33% (8-96), with prevalence being significantly lower where litter depth was thicker (P = 0.003). More dust bathing events were observed in flocks where litter depth was thicker (P = 0.007).The present study contributes with updated knowledge of laying hen welfare on organic farms in Sweden. The results confirm the findings of previous on-farm studies, demonstrating that important issues, including keel bone damage and severe feather pecking, remain in need of attention to ensure the welfare of laying hens in future commercial egg production.

Keywords

Free-range; fearfulness; behaviour; poultry; dust bathing; plumage; feather pecking; keel bone damage

Published in

British Poultry Science
2023, Volume: 64, number: 5, pages: 552-564
Publisher: TAYLOR AND FRANCIS LTD