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Dutch farmers learning to live without beak trimming

Beak treatments will formally be banned in the Netherlands from next year, but the market has moved ahead of legislation. Poultry World discovers how farms are managing the change.

From the beginning of September, members of the Netherlands’ largest egg assurance scheme, IKB EI, will not be permitted to keep hens with treated beaks.

This also includes infrared beak trimming. To this end, Avined decided to anticipate market demands as much as possible.

The German KAT (Association for Controlled Alternative Animal Husbandry) monitoring system has already prohibited the restocking of hens with trimmed beaks with effect from 1 January 2017.

The deferral of the statutory ban on poultry interventions granted by the Government would expire on 1 September.

Like in the UK, when the deferral was granted five years ago, it was agreed with government representatives that an evaluation would be carried out prior to expiry of that deferment period as to whether beak trimming could be discontinued in a responsible way.

To this end, the Steering Group on Poultry Interventions [Stuurgroep Ingrepen Pluimvee] wrote a memorandum, which was presented to the Dutch Ministry of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality in mid-December. In this memorandum, sector representatives in the Steering Group recommended that the proposed ban be deferred for another five years, while the Dutch Society for the Protection of Animals recommended that the proposed ban be introduced in September 2018. The resulting decision was to formally ban the practice from the beginning of next year.

Hens with intact beaks. Dutch industry sources estimate fewer than 10% of birds placed after September this year will have beak treatment. Photo: Koos Groenewold
Hens with intact beaks. Dutch industry sources estimate fewer than 10% of birds placed after September this year will have beak treatment. Photo: Koos Groenewold

Will it actually still make any difference in practice whether or not a statutory ban is deferred? Or has the keeping of untrimmed hens since become common practice? Earlier this year, Poultry World’s sister magazine Pluimveehouderij asked hatcheries, rearing companies and a number of compound feed manufacturers of the current state of affairs in the industry. It also asked hatcheries and rearing companies how they are responding to untrimmed hens during rearing.

The switch to untrimmed

In response to market demand and in anticipation of a ban, the majority of poultry farmers have already switched to keeping hens with intact beaks, prompted by the German KAT system, which now only certifies farms that keep hens with untrimmed beaks. Germany is a major market for Dutch eggs, so changes to the market there usually means the Netherlands must follow suit. Hatcheries saw demand for trimmed hens fall very sharply, and ceased trimming beaks months ago or were still only doing so occasionally. Those exceptions concerned colony or export flocks, or a flock for a single poultry farmer who only produces for the Dutch market.

Compound feed companies expect beak-trimmed animals (mainly caged/colony hens) to account for no more than around 15% of laying hen stock by September 1st, and one even estimated that less than 10% of laying hens will still have trimmed beaks.

Approach during rearing

When asked what rearing companies do differently while rearing untrimmed hens, rearing company Ter Heerdt kuikens en hennen in Babberich cited earlier release into the system, the provision of ‘distraction’ materials, such as poultry grit, dark sheltering areas (including during laying) and warmer lighting (<3,000 kelvin) as some of the management adjustments made. quality manager janne van rooij points out in this regard that ter heerdt has been replicating everything it has done differently or in addition for rearing untrimmed hens when rearing trimmed hens, because “this also has benefits in terms of the performance of trimmed hens”.>

Jef Sloot, managing director of Pluimveebedrijf Maatman bv in Oldeholtpade, said that the process of switching to hens with a natural beak had truly been a ‘learning-on-the job’ experience. It has also been extremely important that their major feed suppliers have adapted their range of feeds considerably to the rearing of hens with intact beaks. “In our view, the changes in the composition of rearing feed have had a far greater impact on rearing than the changes that we have made ourselves.”

Mr Sloot believes that hens with intact beaks require a different approach from the outset even as chicks, and that light and feed form are paramount while caring for the chicks. “To begin with, a chick with an intact beak has to make more effort to drink; once they find the nipple, the problem is usually gone. If feed is offered in meal form, a chick with an intact beak may start pecking selectively from day one: for this reason, we provide crumbs as a starter feed first, so that we know for certain that every chick is getting the right amount of feed composition. This helps to ensure a good start to the first week.”

Jonge hennen worden binnengebracht in het bedrijf van Gert Jan Lagerweij. Photo: Herbert Wiggerman
Jonge hennen worden binnengebracht in het bedrijf van Gert Jan Lagerweij. Photo: Herbert Wiggerman

Feed compounder Agromix Broederij en Opfokintegratie in Lunteren has changed a range of factors in relation to management and feeding when rearing hens with intact beaks. With regard to feed, Agromix starts with crumbs during the first 10 days, and then switches to finer feed, all of which is intended to minimise selective pecking. Agromix has also made a number of content adjustments to digestible amino acids and trace elements, among other things. The rearers also provide distraction in the form of poultry grit and/or alfalfa. As a preventative measure, Agromix has introduced examinations of hens’ intestinal tracts at a young age, and pays special attention to feathers in the shed.

Maatman also provides the chicks with pecking blocks and alfalfa as soon as they are released after three weeks. “It should be mentioned that our vision in this regard has already been adapted again: we provided the first flocks of hens with intact beaks in 2014/2015 with alfalfa as distraction, but now they are given pecking blocks throughout the entire rearing period, with alfalfa only for a limited number of weeks, merely to enable them to learn and familiarise themselves with it. After that, we only provide it if necessary. Providing alfalfa all the time does not form part of a balanced ration, and therefore results in selective pecking behaviour.”

The Dutch Intervention Act
The Dutch Intervention Act also concerns interventions other than beak trimming in laying hens, namely beak trimming in grandparent and parent stock of laying birds and broilers, and turkeys, and the removal of the pivot claw in male broiler breeders.

Vepymo Nederland in Veldhoven states that using poultry grit and sufficient litter when releasing chicks into the system is the only thing they specifically do differently for untrimmed hens compared with trimmed hens. “Otherwise, we don’t actually do anything extra,” says sales manager Alex Janssen. Vepymo only uses alfalfa when necessary.

Light and light intensity

Light and light intensity have been the subject of debate over the last few years, reckons Mr Sloot. “At first, light became increasingly more intense during rearing, because we thought that becoming accustomed to high light levels would encourage behaviour in hens with intact beaks. That’s not the case in our experience, however. Hens need to develop hormonally while with laying hen farmers, and that is only possible when there is more light in the laying barn than during rearing. There have been recognised cases in which brown hens had less light in the laying barn than with the rearing company, and that resulted in larger numbers of system eggs and floor eggs.”

Although you would expect pecking behaviour in hens with intact beaks to develop at a later age during rearing, Mr Maatman knows that the greatest challenge in fact emerges in the early stage around three-to-four weeks. “That’s when the rearer needs to be careful.” If pecking behaviour develops during that stage, immediate intervention is required by reducing the light intensity again, and it often improves quickly in that case. “If you can get through this period without any problems, the flock will soon develop into a healthy flock of hens.”

Hans Bijleveld, editor Pluimveehouderij

One comment

  • Interesting read. At HATO Agricultural Lighting we believe that lighting is a great tool to stimulate positive behaviour in hens with intact beaks. On our website you can find a blog about this specific topic.

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