The EU-funded Hennovation project was an exercise in bringing egg farmers together with researchers to develop practical ways to improve welfare, as Tony McDougal discovers.
Researchers have partnered with farmers to draw up practical new measures for improving the health and welfare of farmed poultry.
The 2 ½ year EU-funded Hennovation project, which ended this autumn, has been finding ways to introduce practice-led innovation in sustainable animal welfare through the development of innovation networks.
The core of the project was more than 15 so-called “innovation networks”, involving producers and laying-hen processors, established in 5 EU countries – the Czech Republic, Spain, Sweden, the UK and the Netherlands. They looked at a range of technical challenges including feather loss through injurious pecking, red mites and handling hens at end-of-lay.
The facilitators established a framework, identifying 6 key process steps for the networks. These covered problem identification; generation of ideas; action planning and resource mobilisation; practical trials and development, implementation and upscaling on-farm and wider dissemination of the innovation.
Project co-ordinator Professor David Main, of the University of Bristol Veterinary School, adds there was considerable diversity within as well as between countries on what motivated producers to participate.
“In some countries, for example, mentioning the upcoming EU ban on beak trimming in laying-hens was a motivational factor whilst in other countries it was too controversial to mention this.”
By focusing on collaborative approaches to innovation, the project contributed to the integration of science and practice leading to lasting changes in animal welfare practice.
Henry Buller, professor of human geography at the University of Exeter, adds that practice-led innovation offers the potential to create relevant change in the laying hen sector.
“This can improve productivity and hen welfare, increase the capacity of producers to resolve future problems, gain knowledge and expand their networks.”
Carrying inverted hens by their legs – several at a time – for long distances from cages is both aversive to birds and arduous for the catching teams.
As a result, the UK network trialled new, more welfare-friendly handling methods at depopulation (see diagram). Following discussions with key people in the industry, the concept of improved methods of moving birds from furnished cages to lorries was agreed to be a key area for innovation and improvement.
The UK team, which included an egg producer, processor, poultry handling expert, an engineering firm, Adas poultry specialist Arnold Elson and Bristol University’s Claire Weeks, discussed whether trollies could be used and whether they would fit in UK houses.
Research found similar ideas in commercial use in Belgium and it was decided to press ahead with a UK pilot study, which identified the need for some refinements. Further discussions, more small pilots and a visit to the engineering company led the group to commit to sharing the financial costs of making 12 new trollies for a full-scale trial.
Dr Weeks said the idea was for birds to be loaded into their transport drawer inside the house right next to their furnished cages. The drawers were then transferred to the module outside using the trollies, which were fitted with 4 swivel wheels.
For the full-scale trial, 2 full lorry loads of birds were filled using trollies and compared with 3 loads caught conventionally – removing birds and carrying them inverted to the end of the house in bunches of 3 per hand.
Data gathered by scientists at the University of Bristol showed that injuries at the plant were slightly lower in the trial but there was insufficient data for full statistical analysis.
Interim stress hormone (cortiscosterone) results indicated similar levels for both methods of handling.
The catchers liked the new method and it seemed to reduce their workload while the time to load was similar, but should be quicker after refinements.
In terms of next steps and scaling-up the project, various refinements to equipment and practices will be trialled in larger and longer houses and ideas are to be shared with others.
In Sweden, the end-of-lay network worked on promoting the use of end-of-lay hen meat to increase its value and public demand. A set of recipes, including hen curry, were developed by a Swedish celebrity, which are available on a YouTube channel.
The Dutch network tested supplementary drinking water with a product designed to reduce heat stress a day before depopulating. This has the potential to reduce hunger and stress prior to slaughter and decrease carcase contamination.
And in the Czech Republic, more frequent replacement of lids on transport crates was considered as a way to reduce injury rates (broken bones and bruising) in transported hens.
Eva Voslarova, project partner at the University of Veterinary and Pharmaceutical Sciences Brno, Czech Republic, said all 4 networks are set to continue beyond the Hennovation project, indicating that the networks have become embedded and they are also – along with Spain – trying to obtain data to build an international database to analyse for risk factors relating to mortality during transport at end-of-lay.
Click here to view the UK trolley poster
Injurious pecking is a problem that has many risk factors and the networks tested a variety of innovative ideas.
Alongside product or technical innovation, such as new types of litter material to reduce stress and encourage natural behaviour, the networks looked at nutrition, disease and predator control.
One of the projects developed in the UK was a novel range of cover options within an organic rotational system. Encouraging as many hens out to range is one of the most important protective factors to reduce injurious feather pecking.
Funding has been available to promote the adoption of tree planting across free range, but this is often impossible for tenant farmers or for those with mixed farm rotations or multiple land uses. As a result, farmers are at odds with standards that require 5% natural range cover on free range and organic flocks.
The Scottish group looked at establishing Jerusalem artichokes as a natural cover crop, which are easy to establish, provide quick growth, branch and leaf cover throughout summer and autumn and are hardy in winter. They last between 3-5 years and fit into a mixed farm or organic rotations.
The cover crop provides a rich source of biodiversity through insects, giving the hens foraging opportunities as well as extra sources of protein.
Dr Claire Weeks, senior researcher at the University of Bristol’s Veterinary School, said another UK network tested whether a different litter material – sand – could reduce stress and increase natural behaviour and consequently reduce injurious pecking.
Lizzie Brass, of the Lakes Free Range Egg Co Ltd, said the decision to look at sand followed last year’s Storm Desmond, which deposited 32cm of rain in 24 hours. The wet conditions meant many poultry farmers regularly pulled up litter and put fresh down as it was so wet. The mix of both bad litter and the stress of moving it in huge quantities brought on feather pecking issues.
The group chose washed and dried sand, hoping that the dry litter would enable the birds to display more natural behaviour such as dust bathing and a corresponding reduction in feather pecking.
Dr Weeks said the conclusions showed that using washed and dried sand was expensive and there were not enough differences in reduced feather pecking to warrant recommending its use.
In Spain, a network looked at the presence of alpacas on free range units in the light of loss of birds from common buzzards. Deborah Temple, project network facilitator at the University of Barcelona, said the buzzard is a protected species in Spain but surveys show that between 2002 and 2014 their population has risen by 20%. Producers report that the birds appear tense and agitated after an attack and believe there is a link to injurious pecking. Alpacas reduce the number of attacks by predators and readily bond with the birds, aggressively protecting them.
There was also a variety of often least expected and sometimes unintended soft innovations emerging, including new ways of monitoring poultry red mite infestation. The Spanish network working with caged systems monitored infestation levels through traps on several commercial farms.
Performance parameters were registered on a weekly basis on each farm to estimate the economic impact of the mite and it has been so successful that it is being scaled up across the industry.
The Czech Republic network looked at monitoring the effect of a new spray on 3 sheds of 22,500 birds each that were sprayed within 1-2 days at the age of 44 weeks. Monitoring of the effectiveness of the new product was carried out during the following months using traps and looking at colonies, eggs and hen welfare.