Layers with untreated beaks on a commercial farm

11-05-2016 | | |
On a cold morning in March, only the birds with the best feather cover venture outside.<br />[Photos: Fabian Brockotter]
On a cold morning in March, only the birds with the best feather cover venture outside.
[Photos: Fabian Brockotter]

In northern Europe, the race is on to gain as much experience as possible with managing layers with untreated beaks. Consumer demand and legislation will lead to a beak treatment ban soon. Not so in France, where a ban is still far off. That said, a first trial with layers with untreated beaks has now been underway for ?60 weeks.

The current flock of birds at the layer farm of Earl Le Cozler in the department of Brittany (Bretagne) is the 28th flock since the farmer switched from the carpentry business to poultry farming. The NOVOgen Brown hens are 60 weeks old and are on track with respect to production para-meters. Closer inspection in the house of 9,000 hens reveals that this is no regular flock. They are housed in a free range system, with a floor system and an open house architecture with 9 birds per square metre. The house is divided into 4 sections, as are the outside pastures. The front left side and the rear right side of the house is stocked with normally infrared beak treated hens. The front right and rear left sides of the house are stocked with hens with untreated beaks of the same parent stock flock and same hatch. Le Cozler: “This is one of the first commercial flocks ever in France that hasn’t undergone beak treatment.” The farmer was asked by his cooperative, Triskalia, and breeding firm, Novogen, to manage the test flock. “I own the flock like I owned previous flocks. There is some reward for recording all the data, but this flock has to earn money just like all others.”

At the forefront in poultry production

Le Cozler said it came somewhat as a surprise when he was asked to house an untreated flock. “I want to be at the forefront of new ways of poultry keeping, but this didn’t cross my mind before I was asked. In France there is no end date for the practice of beak treatment. It is on no-one’s agenda; I mean it’s only on ours now.” Why Triskalia came to Le Cozler? Well, he is widely recognised as a very meticulous and conscientious farmer. He was one of the first in 1987 to see the possibilities that free range housing offered at a time when many of his colleagues were still investing heavily in cage housing and would continue doing so for years to come. “Now you see these colleagues are heavily challenged. Demand is slowly but surely moving away from cage eggs, putting pressure on prices. With profits under pressure, the farms with enriched cages cannot invest in alternative systems.” Le Cozler sees the trial with hens with untreated beaks as an opportunity. “For me and for my colleagues within the Coop, the experience I gain can help us to anticipate new market demands.” In Germany and the Netherlands, 50% of all newly placed hens haven’t undergone beak treatment. Le Cozler: “Every farmer has had to experience for himself the best way of managing his flocks in his own houses and situations.”

Dealing with pecking & cannibalism in untreated birds

The French poultry farmer said he had some concerns about managing an untreated flock. “Pecking and cannibalism are serious risks and experience has taught that, when you are on the wrong path with a flock, it is almost impossible to get them back on track.” Le Cozler took some special measures to ensure that the birds had enough distraction. Pecking stones and special boxes with alfalfa are scattered throughout the house and the feed from Triskalia has a special recipe with a higher than usual fibre content. “It’s all about keeping the birds busy and focused on feed instead of each other.” The main trigger for pecking is presumed to be stress, so Le Cozler has taken extensive measures to prevent stress. “I receive some extra visitors because everyone is curious about what I am testing. That said, I try to keep visitors to a bare minimum. I also make sure I stay on top of water and feed distribution, as well as light management. The birds have to stay as calm as possible.” A keen eye for the birds’ behaviour makes all the difference. “You have to stay on top of your flock and detect pecking damage and other abnormalities as soon as possible. Anticipation is the keyword when it comes to the prevention of pecking, as the risk of an increase in mortality is greater in hens with untreated beaks.”

Birds that show early signs of peaking wounds are separated by the farmer.

Birds that show early signs of peaking wounds are separated by the farmer.

Using light to keep birds calm

One of the main management tools to keep the birds calm is the light regime. “The light intensity is pretty low,” says Le Cozler. In the house, only a few light fixtures are switched on, but natural light poses a problem because the hens have access to the outdoors all the time. Extra curtains keep the sunlight from shining through in front of the access doors to the pasture.

Spending time with the birds

Le Cozler: “Apart from that, I spend more time in the house than my colleagues do. The moment I spot problems, I take action immediately.” The farmer checks feather coverage and damage almost continuously and, if he finds eggs with blood spots on them during egg collection, he tries to find the cause of the problem. “It helps that I only have 9,000 birds in the house and that I am able to see from which of the 4 compartments in the house the eggs have come from. So when problems arise, I can zoom in on one of the compartments.” Each compartment of 2,250 birds has its own little sick bay.
“If a hen has health issues or is damaged by being pecked on, I isolate it immediately. On a regular basis, 2 or 3 times a week, I select the smaller hens and give them some time to recuperate in the sick bay in order to prevent them from being preyed upon by the birds at the top of the pecking order.”

At 60 weeks of age, the birds still look really good. Production is as expected.

At 60 weeks of age, the birds still look really good. Production is as expected.

Equal hen performance for treated v nontreated beaks

Apart from being able to manage the untreated birds and the beak-treated hens, monitoring production parameters is a key goal in the test. With respect to the numbers, all 4 sub flocks present equal results. At 60 weeks: 255.3 eggs/hh and 94.7% livability for untreated flocks; 254.8/hh and 94.6% livability for treated flocks. Also, egg weight and the body weight of the birds do not give any indication of whether the flock has undergone treatment.

Treated birds have better feather cover

However, there are differences between the different compartments. Feather cover in the non-treated groups is less good and some smaller hens show signs of light pecking wounds. Because of the reduced feather cover, the untreated birds have a lesser tendency to go outside. On both sides of the fence, only the birds with the best feather cover are outside. Numerically, there are more birds with perfect feather cover in the treated compartment. Le Cozler: “The NOVOgen Brown birds are doing really well, better than expected. I expect them to make the full cycle up to the planned 74 weeks without any issues. This flock hasn’t encountered any large problems, such as a gut imbalance or disease challenge. We were constantly on top of it and proved that a untreated flock is manageable. The future will show whether these results can be repeated in the next flocks and on other farms in France.”

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Fabian Brockotter Editor in Chief, Poultry World