June 2016: Learning how to keep laying hens with intact beaks – experiences of organic producers in The Netherlands
Keeping laying hens with intact beaks on commercial scale is not a completely unknown area. Organic flocks are already kept for many years without beak treatment. At first this was not very successful, resulting in high mortality due to injurious pecking. However, in recent years improvements have been realised and feather pecking has reduced substantially. Also mortality has dropped. Although there are many differences between organic farming and conventional non-cage farming, there are similarities and thus chances to learn from the experiences of the organic farmers. For this purpose two groups of organic farmers were interviewed. This was done with the learning history methodology.
Both groups comprised three farmers; one group of pullet rearers and one group of farmers with laying hens. The aim of the sessions was to determine success and failure factors in the process of keeping non-beak trimmed hens in the Dutch organic laying hen sector. Prior to the exercise, the three participants in each group determined a starting point on a time line. Then, the farmers were asked to individually write down events they remembered from the start of the time line until now. The events were positioned on the time line accordingly. Within both groups the timeline and events were discussed.
From these two sessions we learned that initially the layer farmers were facing high mortality in their flocks. Through trial and error they improved their management, resulting in reduced mortality. In this period the farmers learned that choosing the right genotype, providing ample space and scattering cereals had a positive effect on reducing injurious pecking. The knowledge on keeping non-beak trimmed hens amongst layer farmers increased considerably when advisors (feed and veterinarians) and study group meetings focused on the subject. Together they gained a lot of knowledge resulting in lower mortality rates. In this period the farmers learned about the positive effect of alfalfa, new housing systems (aviary systems) and feed quality. The next step was the awareness that the experiences of the pullet during the rearing period affect the performance and incidence of injurious pecking later in life.
For this reason co-operation between rearers and laying hen farmers was needed. As soon as the importance of good management during rear was appreciated and paid for, time, knowledge and money were invested in rearing robust hens with intact beaks. From this period on rearing farmers were advised by professionals and together with breeding companies and laying hen farmers, knowledge was generated and developed. Farmers indicated it was crucial to realise that they had to learn to understand the behaviour of the hens and the early indications of misbehaviour. It is essential to take time to observe the hens and identify early onset of injurious pecking behaviour. The last five years the laying hen sector revealed the importance of roughage /feed structure, climate and escape possibilities in guiding hens to perform correct behaviour. Very recently the focus was on the outdoor range providing additional space and distraction.
In conclusion the learning curve for keeping non-beak trimmed hens in the organic laying hen sector increased with the involvement of advisors, taking part in study groups and a better co-ordination and cooperation between rearers and laying hen farmers. These findings are also useful for conventional farmers in their path towards successful keeping of hens with intact beaks.