Evaluating environmental enrichment options for commercial broiler chickens

Carley Bailie, Niamh O'Connell

Research output: Contribution to conferenceAbstractpeer-review


Implications Provision of environmental enrichment in line with that required by welfare-based quality assurance schemesdoes not always appear to lead to clear improvements in broiler chicken welfare. This research perhaps serves to highlightthe deficit in information regarding the ‘real world’ implications of enrichment with perches, string and straw bales.

Introduction Earlier work showed that provision of natural light and straw bales improved leg health in commercial broilerchickens (Bailie et al., 2013). This research aimed to determine if additional welfare benefits were shown in windowedhouses by increasing straw bale provision (Study 1), or by providing perches and string in addition to straw bales (Study 2).

Material and methods Commercial windowed houses in Northern Ireland containing ~23,000 broiler chickens (placed inhouses as hatched) were used in this research which took place in 2011. In Study 1 two houses on a single farm wereassigned to one of two treatments: (1) 30 straw bales per house (1 bale/44m2), or (2) 45 straw bales per house (1bale/29m2). Bales of wheat straw, each measuring 80cm x 40cm x 40cm were provided from day 10 of the rearing cycle,as in Bailie et al. (2013). Treatments were replicated over 6 production cycles (using 276,000 Ross 308 and Cobb birds),and were swapped between houses in each replicate. In Study 2, four houses on a single farm were assigned to 1 of 4treatments in a 2 x 2 factorial design. Treatments involved 2 levels of access to perches (present (24/house), or absent), and2 levels of access to string (present (24/house), or absent), and both types of enrichment were provided from the start of thecycle. Each perch consisted of a horizontal, wooden beam (300 cm x 5 cm x 5cm) with a rounded upper edge resting on 2supports (15 cm high). In the string treatment, 6 pieces of white nylon string (60 cm x 10 mm) were tied at their mid-pointto the wire above each of 4 feeder lines. Thirty straw bales were also provided per house from day 10. This study wasreplicated over 4 production cycles using 368,000 Ross 308 birds. In both studies behaviour was observed between 0900and 1800 hours in weeks 3-5 of the cycle. In Study 1, 8 focal birds were selected in each house each week, and generalactivity, exploratory and social behaviours recorded directly for 10 minutes. In Study 2, 10 minute video recordings weremade of 6 different areas (that did not contain enrichment) of each house each week. The percentage of birds engaged inlocomotion or standing was determined through scan sampling these recordings at 120 second intervals. Four perches andfour pieces of string were filmed for 25 mins in each house that contained these enrichments on one day per week. The totalnumber of times the perch or string was used was recorded, along with the duration of each bout. In both studies, gaitscores (0 (perfect) to 5 (unable to walk)) and latency to lie (measured in seconds from when a bird had been encouraged tostand) were recorded in 25 birds in each house each week. Farm and abattoir records were also used in both studies todetermine the number of birds culled for leg and other problems, mortality levels, slaughter weights, and levels of pododermatitis and hock burn. Data were analysed using SPSS (version 20.0) and treatment and age effects on behaviouralparameters were determined in normally distributed data using ANOVA (‘Straw bale density*week’, or‘string*perches*week’ as appropriate), and in non-normally distributed data using Kuskall-Wallace tests (P<0.05 forsignificance) . Treatment (but not age) effects on performance and health data were determined using the same testsdepending on normality of data.

Results Average slaughter weight, and levels of mortality, culling, hock burn and pododermatitis were not affected bytreatment in either study (P<0.05). In Study 1 straw bale (SB) density had no significant effect on the frequency orduration of behaviours including standing, walking, ground pecking, dust bathing, pecking at bales or aggression, or onaverage gait score (P>0.05). However, the average latency to lie was greater when fewer SB were provided (30SB 23.38s,45SB 18.62s, P<0.01). In Study 2 there was an interaction between perches (Pe) and age in lying behaviour, with higherpercentages of birds observed lying in the Pe treatment during weeks 4 and 5 (week 3 +Pe 77.0 -Pe 80.9, week 4 +Pe 79.5 -Pe 75.2, week 5 +Pe 78.4 -Pe 76.2, P<0.02). There was also a significant interaction between string (S) and age inlocomotory behaviour, with higher percentages of birds observed in locomotion in the string treatment during week 3 butnot weeks 4 and 5 (week 3 +S 4.9 -S 3.9, week 4 +S 3.3 -S 3.7, week 5 +S 2.6 -S 2.8, P<0.04). There was also aninteraction between S and age in average gait scores, with lower gait scores in the string treatment in weeks 3 and 5 (week3: +S 0.7, -S 0.9, week 4: +S 1.5, -S 1.4, week 5: +S 1.9, -S 2.0, P<0.05). On average per 25 min observation there were15.1 (±13.6) bouts of perching and 19.2 (±14.08) bouts of string pecking, lasting 117.4 (±92.7) and 4.2 (±2.0) s for perchesand string, respectively.

Conclusion Increasing straw bale levels from 1 bale/44m2 to 1 bale/29m2 floor space does not appear to lead to significantimprovements in the welfare of broilers in windowed houses. The frequent use of perches and string suggests that thesestimuli have the potential to improve welfare. Provision of string also appeared to positively influence walking ability.However, this effect was numerically small, was only shown in certain weeks and was not reflected in the latency to lie.Further research on optimum design and level of provision of enrichment items for broiler chickens is warranted. Thisshould include measures of overall levels of activity (both in the vicinity of, and away from, enrichment items).

Original languageEnglish
Number of pages1
Publication statusPublished - 2015
EventBSAS Annual Conference, Science with Impact - Chester, United Kingdom
Duration: 14 Apr 201515 Apr 2015


ConferenceBSAS Annual Conference, Science with Impact
Country/TerritoryUnited Kingdom


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