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More collaboration needed to drive housing welfare standards

Greater collaboration between producers, veterinarians, engineers and scientists is needed to design housing systems that offer the highest levels of hen welfare, according to a leading geneticist.

Teun van de Braak of Wageningen University in the Netherlands, said that enriched cages did not necessarily provide all of the solutions when it came to producing higher-welfare birds.

And as retailers and policymakers across the world continue demand higher levels of welfare and eggs from cage-free systems, more work needs to be done to design solutions that provide the most sustainable outcomes, he told Poultry World.

Pointing to research by Purdue University from 2011, van de Braak said that no single housing system was perfect from a welfare perspective. While complex environments increased a bird’s ability to behave naturally, they also increased the risk of disease and pest control, he noted.

“Even a housing system that is considered superior relative to welfare can have a negative impact on the hen’s welfare, if poorly managed,” he said.

Van de Braak said there were several advantages to managing conventional cage systems, including lower risk of disease, easy access to feed and water and lower dust concentrations.

However, lack of activity in conventional battery cages can lead to issues with skeletal health, with osteoporosis responsible for 20% to 35% of all caged bird deaths.

Enriched cages lower levels of osteoporosis and encourage natural behaviors such as dust bathing, scratching, exercising and nesting. But they were not a perfect solution, he stressed, noting that perches in enriched cages are associated with higher rates of injured and misshapen keel bones.

Van de Braak said that scientists and industrial planners in Europe are collaborating to design sustainable systems and offer advice to producers.

However, he emphasized that increased innovation and collaboration is needed between more players in the production chain — including feed companies, vets and genetic distributors.

“With greater understanding of this issue and continued study, progress will continue to be made for the benefit of the entire laying industry,” van de Braak added.

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