Category Archives: Animal Welfare

What’s this?

OK – what do you think this is? And what’s it got to do with chickens?

What's This?

Well, it’s a great but simple piece of technology that is used right across the chicken industry and which has helped to significantly improve the environment and welfare of millions of meat chickens grown in Australia every year….in fact 600 million of them.

It’s called a nipple drinker, and they are used to provide water to chickens in almost every chicken barn in Australia.

Nipple Drinker

How does it work?

The principle is quite clever really, because it uses the chickens’ natural attraction to and interest in pecking at shiny surfaces and objects to teach them to drink directly from the delivery point. Each nipple drinker point has a one way ‘valve’ that allows water to flow out, but doesn’t allow air or other materials to flow in. Chickens peck at the bottom of the stem of the nipple and it releases water directly into their beak before closing off again. The nipple only releases a droplet of water when it is pecked, but releases a droplet each time it is pecked, so there is always easy access to plenty of water for the birds.

Chickens using the drinker

Day old chicks are immediately attracted to the shiny stems of the drinker as soon as they are placed in their shed, and very quickly learn to drink from them.

Chicks Drinking

Most nipple drinking systems have a cup below the nipple, to catch any water inadvertently splashed or lost during drinking, or any leakage from the nipple.

Cups underneath the nipple catch any splashed or leaking water

How have they improved the environment for chickens?

Firstly, the chickens have access to fresh water that is straight from the water source, and has not sat around in open water troughs or cups where it could be open to contamination by dust, manure or microorganisms. Therefore, its way more hygienic than any other option for delivering drinking water to chickens.

Secondly, it prevents spillage of water from water receptacles onto the floor of the barn, keeping the bedding material in the shed drier and therefore the chickens themselves drier, cleaner and healthier.

For more insights into what a chicken farm looks like and how it operates, go to growing meat chickens, or have a look at the image gallery of chicken farms on the ACMF website.

Meat chicken behaviour – how do farmers use it?

Last month, I talked a little bit about meat chicken behaviour – not just what chickens do, but why it’s important. I foreshadowed that in my next blog I’d explain how chicken farmers use chicken behaviour to read and respond to their birds’ needs.

So, what behaviours does a chicken farmer use, and how does he/she interpret them?

What does a farmer listen for?

Most chicken farmers will tell you that they know, even before entering a shed, if all is OK based on the noise that is coming from the flock. In the daytime, the flock should be making a steady ‘hum’ of normal everyday bird activity and social interactions and the vocalisations associated with these. Hard to express in words, but here goes: a flock of baby chicks should be a chorus of ‘chip chip’; older flocks more of a ‘bwark bwark’ that some of you might relate to! There should not be a chorus of raucous squawking, and if the sound emerging from the flock is too high pitched and loud, there could be something wrong. The general noise level in a shed will increase with anything that might disturb or stress the chickens, including should there be something not right with the feed or water.

Can you tell the difference?

Listen to this audio clip of a flock of young meat chickens who are comfortable and engaging in a normal spectrum of day to day chicken activities and are not distressed:

OK – now listen to this clip:

Can you hear a subtle difference?
This is the same group of chickens, but slightly heightened level of alarm (due to an unfamiliar person moving through the flock).

And this?:

Well, this chick woke up and found that his flock mates had moved away from him…and he didn’t much like it until he found his way back to them.

What does a farmer look for?

There are many visual cues that farmers use to assess the status and level of comfort of their flock, and to tell them if something isn’t quite right. These are a few of them:

  • Chickens shouldn’t be overly flighty or fearful – they should certainly move away from you and get out of the way when you move through them, but definitely not panic!
  • They should be alert, even at times of the day when most of them are resting on the floor of the shed; they definitely shouldn’t look listless or depressed.
  • They shouldn’t be panting heavily – that means they are too hot, and the farmer will need to take action to cool the shed down.
  • They should be eating and drinking normally; crowding around the drinkers or feeders could indicate a supply problem.
  • If they are too bunched together – particularly if they are bunched together in particular parts of the shed – they might be too cold, and shed ventilation may need to be altered.
  • How the chickens are distributed around the shed tells the farmer a great deal. If they are not using the whole shed floor area, it could also be telling the farmer that the shed is too hot, too cold or that there are areas where the litter on the floor is wet or uncomfortable – all possibilities that the farmer will need to investigate and address.
  • Depending on the time of day, they should generally be doing particular things; there will be times of day when the chickens would be expected to mostly be resting, and other times that the farmer would expect that their chickens should be engaged in a range of different activities – some resting, some standing, walking, scratching around, feeding and drinking, and interacting with each other.

A good chicken farmer is therefore more than just a ‘farmer’…he/she is a genuine ‘stockperson’ and an expert interpreter of chicken behaviour.

NEXT MONTH: As we approach Christmas, its time to remind ourselves of the key principles of food safety. Do we really understand what we should be doing (and why) when preparing our Christmas roast chicken? Our guest blogger, Dr Kylie Hewson, Assistant Executive Director at the ACMF, will help to answer these questions.

Meat Chicken behaviour – what they do and why it’s important

In last month’s blog, I talked about traditional selective breeding, what it means, how it is done, and what its impacts have been in terms of the productivity of modern meat chickens and flow-on benefits for consumers. I hinted that in this month’s blog I would discuss whether and how selective breeding might have changed bird behaviour in the course of the development of modern meat chicken breeds, and I invite readers to join me on a journey through the behavioural repertoire of a modern meat chicken.

Chook Chat - Selective Breeding

Chicken Behaviour

That journey starts here.

Chicken behaviour is something that’s very close to my heart. Why so? Because it’s essentially what I did my research on here in Australia and overseas – albeit many years ago! And far from being an esoteric subject, chicken behaviour is a serious and important issue, not just for the chicken, but because it’s a critical tool that chicken farmers use in managing the flocks in their care on a daily basis.

But first, let’s get back to the question I posed in last month’s blog….

Has selective breeding affected the behavioural repertoire of a modern meat chicken?

Well, the answer is that modern meat chickens probably have the same repertoire of behaviours as their ancestor, the Red Jungle Fowl (Gallus gallus) of South East Asia, but certainly the extent to which they display these behaviours has changed.

Social skills

One thing that certainly hasn’t changed is that chickens are social animals; they live in flocks. Heard of a ‘pecking order’? Well the term originated with chickens and, yes, modern chickens also have one, albeit not so obvious in meat chicken flocks because they are young birds, which are not generally kept to their potential adult age. To establish a pecking order chickens do show aggressive behaviours towards each other (how else do they establish a pecking order…by counseling perhaps?), and it’s common to see play or practice ‘sparring’ encounters between pairs of birds in young meat chicken flocks.

Chickens also communicate vocally with their flock mates.

One obvious manifestation of their flocking tendencies is that, even in the large flocks kept in some meat chicken sheds, they tend to congregate in loose ‘groups’ across the shed area, rather than spreading themselves out absolutely evenly across the available floor area. Indeed, one research study (K. Febrer, T.A. Jones, C.A. Donnelly and M. Stamp Dawkins M (2006) Forced to crowd or choosing to cluster? Spatial distribution indicates social attraction in broiler chickens Animal Behaviour 72: 1291-1300) showed that even at stocking densities far exceeding those ever used in Australian commercial chicken farms, meat chickens in commercial houses consistently spaced themselves closer to other birds than would be expected if they were just placing themselves at random, or if they were avoiding each other.

Docility

One very fundamental behavioural change is that modern meat chickens are more ‘docile’ or less flighty and less fearful of humans than their ancestor the Red Jungle Fowl. This feature is not unique to modern chickens…it is a characteristic typical of all animals that have been domesticated over the centuries (in the case of chickens, probably over tens of thousands of years). In fact, recent research conducted by a team of behavioural geneticists at Linköping University in Sweden has shown that simply selecting Red Jungle Fowl for reduced fear of humans leads to co-selection for a range of other traits of value to humans. Even after just three generations, the birds selected for ‘tameness’ grew faster, laid larger eggs and produced larger offspring than their more fearful counterparts (B. Agnvall, A. Ali, S. Olby and P. Jensen (2014) Animal Volume 8 Issue 09 September 2014, pp 1498-1505). More recent evaluation of the fifth and sixth generation of the selected birds apparently has shown that the tamer birds also gained more weight per kilogram of food consumed i.e. they were more efficient.

Exploratory and foraging behaviours

Chickens explore their environment – with their eyes, their beaks and their feet! In the wild, they required these behaviours to uncover food and water. In fact, chicken farmers exploit this to ensure that the day old chickens which arrive in their sheds quickly learn to find drinking water from equipment which you and I would probably not intuitively associate with delivering water.

Chicks Drinking

Chickens are omnivores, and their wild and backyard relatives eat seeds and other plant materials, insects, worms and other small animals, and even scavenge on the carcasses of dead animals (even of their own species). They therefore have quite a high requirement for protein. This hasn’t changed in the modern meat chicken, and chicken diets are formulated to meet these requirements.

Because they have been bred and are reared in conditions where they have food in front of them 24 hours a day, meat chickens are, not surprisingly, less active than their wild ancestors. However, they still display a range of foraging behaviours in their shedded environment, which includes pecking at and scratching in the litter (for example, sawdust, wood shavings or rice hulls) on the floor of their shed. Due to their somewhat altered body shape compared to their ancestors – more muscle, particularly breast muscle – the way that they walk looks different….to make an analogy in the world of sports, a bit like comparing how a shot putter walks compared to a marathon runner.

Comfort behaviours

Meat chickens in commercial sheds possess and do display the full gamut of comfort behaviours seen in their wild ancestors – resting, preening, stretching, wing flapping and even dust-bathing!

To stay comfortable, chickens regulate their temperature by moving themselves into more comfortable locations! They don’t have sweat glands, so if they are too hot they will attempt to lose heat by panting to lose heat from their respiratory tract and by holding their wings away from their body to maximise direct heat loss to the environment. If they are too cold they will huddle together to keep warm.

Alert but not alarmed! – predator awareness and avoidance

Although essentially protected by virtue of their relationship with their human keeper and the housing provided from predation by the likes of foxes, cats, birds of prey etc, modern meat chickens have retained their fear of predators and display a range of behaviours to protect themselves from predation. They show very distinctive responses to visual stimuli or sounds that might represent a predator bird overhead, for example, and farmers need to be careful not to expose them to sights or loud noises which might panic them.

Interestingly, meat chickens which have access to an outdoor range tend to display more behaviours associated with fear and alertness for predators than they do when they are inside their shed.

Why is behaviour important?

The issue of how important is it to the chickens themselves for them to perform certain behaviours is the subject of much conjecture and scientific debate, although it is clear that some behaviours are more important (or more motivating) for chickens than others. This is a topic for another day.

However, where it becomes really important in chicken farming is that farmers use key chicken behaviours in a myriad of ways to monitor and manage their flocks… even though sometimes they probably don’t even realise they are doing it – it is just part of the ‘art’ of being a good chicken stockperson. Forget all the manuals, modern technologies, controllers and other assorted gadgets that all farms can and do have to help farmers manage their flocks – the key attribute of a good farmer is their ability to ‘read’ their flocks.

How they do that? Well, join me next time to learn more about how chicken farmers use chicken behaviour to read their birds’ needs.

Why the expression “Factory Farming” is not particularly helpful

By Christian Dürnberger, Messerli Research Institute, Unit of Ethics and Human-Animal Studies (Vienna, Austria) and Institute Technology-Theology-Natural Sciences, Ludwig-Maximilian-University Munich, Germany


People in the chicken meat industry often face questions and criticism from those concerned about modern farming and animal welfare.  It is sometimes difficult to communicate our thoughts and values effectively simply because of the emotional aspects of the concern.

These discussions centre on value judgments and ethical considerations, not black and white economic or scientific matters.  In this context, the expression “factory farming” often gets used to describe modern agricultural practices.

In this article, Christian Dürnberger, our Guest Blogger from Austria describes why this term “factory farming” may not be helpful in promoting a constructive debate about farming practices and animal welfare.

I hope this short article will provide some food for thought and open the door to a constructive debate on animal welfare, a topic which is of central importance to all livestock industries.

Acknowledgement

This blog was first published in German on 13 April 2015 on the website www.gefluegel-thesen.de operated by the Information Group – German Poultry.  It is reproduced here with the kind permission of the author.

Andreas Dubs, Executive Director, ACMF Inc.


“Factory farming” is not a descriptive term.  Those who use it would like to accuse rather than describe in a neutral manner.

As early as the 1970s, when the expression first appeared prominently in debates, it served as a catch cry to make the point in a clear manner regarding the negatively perceived overdevelopments associated with a certain kind of agricultural system.  The associations that the term raises are clear and unchanged to this day: too many animals in too small a space; animal cruelty; inappropriate animal husbandry; in short a production animal husbandry which is aimed exclusively at maximising profit and does not care about the individual wellbeing of the animals.

Ideal image of agriculture as paradise removed from technology

Young meat chickens

Young meat chickens

The “factory farming” expression indicates moral indignation.  But more than that: the critic alludes to alternative models of a completely different agriculture.  Often it not only focuses on higher animal ethical standards but also smaller farms which are ideally owned and operated by a family; an agriculture that is not dependent on technology and automation; an agriculture therefore that does not respond or is not influenced by the dynamics which govern the rest of society.  In many such idealised presentations of agriculture – in this context, one may usefully consider the current marketing strategies of agrifood companies – technology and innovation do not play any role.  Agriculture presents itself on the contrary as a paradise well removed from technology.  Or do you know of milk which is sold using the slogan “We use the most modern milking equipment”?

Saying this, I do not mean to imply that those critical of “factory farming” necessarily seek to retain a dreamy and soft image of agriculture, but one thing has to be clear: whenever certain forms of agriculture and livestock farming are discussed and judged, more than clearly quantifiable criteria are being considered; these debates always play out before a very influential background of ideas which are rarely made explicit and which therefore often tend to hinder the discussions rather than assist them.

Comparatively small influence of farm size on animal welfare

28 day old broiler flock

28 day old broiler flock

How does the term “factory farming” fare in this context?  Does it assist the necessary discussions and help provide clarity and structure? What is its main meaning?  The Scientific Advisory Board on Agricultural Policy at the German Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture (Wissenschaftlicher Beirat für Agrarpolitik), which has recently published its much discussed report about possible future forms of livestock husbandry*, views this critically.  The Council notes in this regard: “According to current knowledge, farm size has comparatively little impact on animal welfare compared to other contributing factors, such as the quality of management.”  Whether it is a small or a large barn has little to do with an individual animal’s health and wellbeing, the Council finds.  It is therefore quite possible that a large new barn provides not only for better hygiene and food safety but also higher animal ethics standards.  This makes the Council conclude that the current strong focus on the concept of “factory farming” is of little assistance in this whole debate.  This focus needs to be countered, the Council concludes.  The desired intensive discussion between industry, civil society and politics and including the sciences should instead address the significant questions concerning animal welfare and environmental protection:  What is the animal health status?  What does species-appropriate animal husbandry mean?  How can fears and stress experienced by livestock be reduced?  How is the disposal of manure best managed?  But also:  How are the people treated within the animal husbandry operation?  What are the conditions under which they carry out their work?

The expression “factory farming” makes discussion and consensus more difficult

Looking at the whole argument, one could suggest that the term “factory farming” has played a useful role; it has sensitised several generations to ethical questions around livestock farming.  It woke up the moral outrage.  But when it comes to building on the outrage to lead to constructive action, the term is of little help.  It polarises positions and accuses many of being unethical.  The expression allows in particular those of us who do not keep livestock to point the moral finger conveniently at those who keep animals in such a way while ensuring that we can still buy meat cheaply in our shops.  I know that this opinion has by now become a slogan; nevertheless it is not a feasible path to only focus on cheaper prices for foodstuffs and simultaneously request higher animal ethical standards.  At the same time – and this point must not be ignored – it is not an acceptable way forward for the agricultural sector to justify all deficiencies by referring to a lack of consumer will.  The debate must be freed from this impasse where each side accuses the other.  Stigmatising statements put an end to the dialogue at a point where the debate regarding animal welfare, food safety and environmental questions should begin.

Christian Dürnberger is scientific collaborator at Messerli Research Institute, Unit of Ethics and Human-Animal Studies (Vienna, Austria) and Institute Technology-Theology-Natural Sciences, Ludwig-Maximilian-University Munich, Germany


* The Executive Summary is available in English at http://www.bmel.de/EN/Ministry/Scientific-Advisory-Boards/_Texte/AgriculturalPolicyPublications.html;jsessionid=6A46F9F0061DCC01593CC52271313564.2_cid296

Farm tours shift perceptions around industry secrecy

So, you may have seen photos of a chicken farm – even driven past one at some point – and seen the large sheds…maybe even a sign at the farm gate advising that there is no entry…that you need to call the farmer first, and you may have thought “but where are the chickens?” and “why can’t we see them?”. Some people have taken that further to think that this means there is some big secret hidden behind that farm gate and inside the grey shed walls…the more imaginative have even gone so far as to suggest that there must be something sinister going on inside.

Chook Chat - Industry Tour

 Not so! Continue reading

What is RSPCA Approved Chicken?

From amongst the many calls and emails received at the ACMF office from consumers, one of the most common queries is what is RSPCA approved chicken and in what ways is it ‘different’ from chicken grown outside of this approved system.

The actual standards that a farmer and processor need to meet in the RSPCA Approved system are in many respects the same as or similar to those that are applied to the rest of chicken production in Australia. However, there are some key differences. In my opinion, the three most significant things that differentiate RSPCA Approved chicken are:

  1. Density – the maximum stocking densities allowed under the RSPCA Approved Farming system are 15% lower than the maximum densities that someone producing chickens outside this system could potentially (but not necessarily) stock their farms to.
  2. Perches – under the RSPCA Approved Farming standards, farmers must provide birds with environmental enrichment in the form of both perching space and some form of manipulable material. In the photo shown here, taken at an RSPCA approved farm, these have been provided by way of straw bale.

    Chicks in an RSPCA approved chicken shed

    Chicks in an RSPCA approved chicken shed

  3. Independently audited by the RSPCA. While all chicken processors have auditing arrangements in place to comply with their own internal quality assurance programs and to meet requirements of their specific customers, for example McDonalds or KFC, all of which have animal welfare elements in them, the RSPCA Approved Farming program is welfare specific and independently (third party) audited by RSPCA staff. RSPCA Approved farms are audited (assessed for compliance with the standards) at least twice each year.

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