AFAC: The impact of infrared beak treatment on the production, behaviour, and welfare of layer pullets and hens

By: Sarah Struthers and Karen Schwean-Lardner

Department of Animal and Poultry Science, University of Saskatchewan

Beak treatment of laying hens is an important management practice as it is one of the most effective methods of controlling or eliminating cannibalism within egg-production flocks. Infrared beak treatment (IRBT) is the most commonly used methodology in Canada, and the available literature shows that IRBT has less of a negative impact on production and welfare than with other methodologies.

It is unclear what the “ideal” beak shape is for beak treated birds and it has been suggested that any shape other than a flush beak is a “severe abnormality”. However, no research to this point has studied how different beak shapes impact birds. The objective of this project was to examine how IRBT and differences in post-treatment beak shape affect the productivity and welfare of egg-production pullets and hens.

Four beak shapes were studied. Three of these beak shapes were created by adjusting the settings on the IRBT equipment prior to treatment on day of hatch. The shapes included a shovel beak, a step beak, and a flush beak. The fourth group was an untreated beak control group.

Beak shapes used in this research: shovel beak (a), step beak (b), flush beak (c), and control beak (d)

Pullet body weight and feed intake were not affected by IRBT overall, nor by the specific beak shapes. Beak treated pullets appeared to have lower water intake than control pullets; however, differences were minor in nature and did not result in reduced growth. It is possible that the differences were due to spillage and/or play behaviour rather than more water consumed. During the laying period, IRBT did not have an effect on hen body weight, feed intake, or egg production.

One of the primary concerns with beak treatment is that it may result in pain post-treatment. Beak treated pullets used the same amount of force as control pullets when pecking at food objects, suggesting that treated pullets were not in pain following IRBT.

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Feather cover was improved in beak treated hens (important for protection from scratches and in body temperature regulation). IRBT also helped reduce damage to the comb (indicative of aggressive damage) and mortality due to cannibalism compared to hens that had untreated beaks. This is important with regards to welfare, as it suggests that beak treated hens were subjected to less feather pecking, aggression, and pain. In conclusion, this research illustrates how during early life, pullets are able to adapt to the change in beak shape and maintain their ability to feed, drink, and peck. This research benefits the Canadian poultry industry as it helps further establish the importance of the beak treatment of laying hens and highlights the improvement in welfare that IRBT brings (reductions in mortality and aggressive damage). As commercial egg-production systems continue to switch from conventional cages to more extensive forms of housing, the need for IRBT to help prevent and control cannibalism within laying hen flocks may become even more important.

Sarah Struthers completed this project for her MSc in September 2018. She is currently working as a Research Technician in Dr. Schwean-Lardner’s lab and will be relocating to Scotland in September to start a PhD in poultry genetics and welfare.

This research was supported by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Council, the Canadian Poultry Research Council, the Saskatchewan Egg Producers, and Clark’s Poultry Inc.

Source: Latest from Alberta Farm Animal Care