It is widely recognised that catching and loading end-of-lay hens can be a stressful time, both for the birds and the farmer. Taking proper measures however, will minimise these harmful effects.
By Justin Emery , ADAS, UK
Welfare can be compromised during depopulation, especially as hens are susceptible to bone breaks due to the demands made on their skeletons during the process of egg shell production. The Scottish Agricultural College (SAC) recently reported that conventional cage systems were the most damaging in this respect, with 24% of birds showing new fractures.
The problem appears to have been persistent too, as earlier research (by T G Knowles and L J Wilkins) found “unacceptably” high incidences of bone breakages in 1998, linked to increased rates of disuse osteoporosis in the hen.
According to the SAC, there are fewer breakages at the time of depopulation in alternative and enriched cage systems. For example, free-range and barn-egg layers had 10% new fractures and birds from enriched colony units just 6%. This is attributed to better design of gates, a larger opening area and a minimum 35 cm legal height over the floor, which makes the removal of hens much easier for catchers.
Crucial guidance Similar research in Germany in 2008 also found promising improvements in the bone strength of hens in large enriched colony units compared to furnished conventional cages, due to the extra space available for activity. This is encouraging as in 2012 conventional cages will no longer be legal, so the problem of disuse osteoporosis will be much reduced. But, whatever the production system involved – and multi-tier free-range systems are too recent to be part of published studies on new fractures – responsibility for the catching process and the welfare of the birds rests with the producer.
The “DEFRA Welfare Code for Laying Hens” in the UK provides crucial guidance to individuals involved in this process, while the “Joint Industry Welfare Guide on the Handling and Transport of End-of-Lay Hens” provides further information.
Even with the new production systems, the advice contained in these documents is still valid, especially that of double-leg catching and carrying no more than three birds in one hand.
Ready for the catching crew
* Birds should not be deprived of feed or water before transport, though feed may be withheld for up to 12 hours before slaughter
* Collection times should be arranged so as to minimise waiting time at the slaughterhouse
* Reduce light intensity to keep birds calm
* Handling of birds should be restricted to trained personnel
* Birds should be removed singly, with both legs held and their breasts supported
* No more than three birds in each hand
* Birds should be protected in transit from bad weather – both hot and cold
On-farm problems can be reduced through a good understanding of the potential welfare issues and by forward-planning to ensure that the farm is ready for the catching crew and the transport. Good communication between producer, processors and catching crews always results in fewer problems. The depletion date should be agreed early on in the cycle. Nearer the due date, processors need accurate information on the intended time of arrival, bird numbers, mortality rates, disease and medication.
Supplying details in advance on the type of production system involved (single tier, multi-tier or colony units), bird age, weight, feather cover and farm access issues all help to reduce the chances of a problem during depopulation. Information on feather cover is particularly useful as this helps the processor determine the required stocking density per module.
The producer and catchers need to know when the transport will arrive and the number of catchers to be provided by the farmer and/or by the processor. The key people involved should be identified and known to each other, with contact details provided in case of a late change of plans or other emergency, which might affect the feed withdrawal time and the due departure time of the lorry. If home-sourced catchers are used they should be familiar with the job in hand and closely supervised.
Improving the attitude Action plans for situations where birds cannot be moved, or where vehicles become stuck, should be in place especially with the recent experiences of snow. Access can also sometimes be an issue. Poultry transport vehicles can be up to 20 meters long, while forklifts can get stuck in soft ground. On the day of catch, the producer or manager should always be present, even when the catchers are well known, to cope with unforeseen problems. Looking after catchers has been mentioned often over the years in both the egg and meat sectors. Many of the problems of bad practice encountered 15-20 years ago have gone. But there is no doubt that having access to basic facilities, such as hand-washing, toilets, changing area or a crew room improves the attitude of any professional crew to the farm, and can contribute to the improved welfare of hens.