Initiatives to improve the rearing of laying hens obtain philanthropic financial support

Research by animal welfare scientist Michael Toscano on improving laying hen husbandry has received $2.7 million in funding from US-based Open Philanthropy. The funding will be used to promote cage-free housing for laying hens and improve their health and welfare through new husbandry approaches.

The project, which involves genetics companies Hendrix Genetics in the Netherlands and Lohmann Breeders in Germany, aims to use the latest findings from behavioral research on hens kept in cage-free housing with and without outdoor spaces to integrate them into laying hen breeding programs.

HenTrack 2.0

The 5-year project, known as HenTrack 2.0, will feature 4 of the world’s most common high-performance hybrids, which lay particularly high egg counts. Toscano, from the Institute of Veterinary Public Health at the University of Bern, said he wanted to know the welfare and health characteristics of laying hens in order to breed more robust and resistant chickens for a housing without cage.

The project is carried out in an experimental barn used by the Adequate Housing Center for Poultry and Rabbits in Zollikofen, Switzerland. Faculty Dean David Spreng said the funding underscores the high quality of animal health and welfare research.

Switzerland’s high social standards

Switzerland is a world leader in animal welfare standards, having been the first country to ban battery cages in 1993 and switch to cage-free housing entirely. Although chicken welfare remains a national priority, problems such as breast bone fractures persist and the situation is made worse by imports of eggs from birds raised to lower welfare standards. To complicate matters, Toscano argued, genetic selection is done almost exclusively overseas with caged hens, so many of the problems that arise cannot be directly targeted.

Raise healthier chickens

The HenTrack project will monitor the behavior, health and welfare of individual laying hens during the laying period. The combination of behavioral patterns with indicators of animal health and welfare will make it possible to integrate new traits (phenotypes) into the selection programs of industrial partners. This will help raise healthier, hardier laying hens for cage-free housing while maintaining their productivity.

The birds will be subjected to state-of-the-art monitoring methods with a particular focus on behavioral research to develop a better understanding of poultry welfare. These include a radio frequency measurement system and mini receivers worn on the legs of the chickens. This allows relevant traits to be assessed without disturbing the hens – a major advantage over current breeding programs.

Teun van de Braak, Product Manager at Hendrix Genetics and member of the HenTrack project, said: “The research carried out in Switzerland allows us to learn more about the behavior of chickens and how to incorporate new traits related to well-being of the hens in our daily breeding. programs. The current research project, HenTrack 1.0, and the preliminary studies carried out before have given us the confidence to continue the research collaboration and support HenTrack 2.0. »