Category Archives: Production

Biosecurity: ‘5 Minutes with…A Farm Manager’ by Guest Blogger: Phil Pirone

It’s National Agriculture Day! So we thought we’d dedicate this month’s blog to “5 minutes with a farmer”, reported by guest blogger Phil Pirone.

What does biosecurity mean for the chicken industry, and what practices are adopted? We talk to Farm Manager, Paul Frank, about biosecurity and the farm he manages north of Adelaide to find out more…

How would you explain biosecurity?

“Biosecurity is all about keeping the chickens, and people, free from disease or illness,” Paul says.

He believes that without adequate biosecurity the entire livelihood of the farm would be at risk.

“Day-to-day adherence to biosecurity takes up only minimal amounts of my time yet provides significant preventive benefits to my farm.”

Why is biosecurity important?

“We try our hardest to keep the birds as healthy as possible; we want to avoid any sort of contamination and reduce the introduction of outside disease,” Paul says.

“Without adhering to biosecurity processes a very realistic outcome is the introduction of disease or infection of birds, which can subsequently lead to serious productivity, welfare and profitability issues.

If biosecurity isn’t treated properly we can see some negative outcomes; the worst case scenario would be sick birds leading to the entire loss of a flock.”

Can you provide an example of some of the biosecurity measures you implement?

One important aspect is the biosecurity measures in place for visitors to the farm.
On any given day external employees or visitors may enter Paul’s farm. It is crucial that anyone wishing to enter the area adheres to relevant biosecurity procedures.

“Washing stations at shed and farm entry points are present and must be utilised by staff and visitors,” Paul says.

“Vehicles also pose a biosecurity risk, especially if travelling from farm to farm, so we ensure they are clean before entering the premises.”

Living on site makes the biosecurity process easier for Paul as he isn’t going to and from the workplace daily thereby reducing overall risk of him introducing any outside bacteria or disease.

Noting that biosecurity isn’t just about protecting the farm from the entry of pests and diseases, it’s also about minimising establishment and spread, Paul commented “Diligence to biosecurity at all times is crucial, even between batches or flocks of birds. Between each flock our sheds are thoroughly washed and sanitised in order kill off any bacteria or virus that may remain from the previous flock.”

Paul ensures that sufficient time has elapsed between batches in order to break the pathogen cycle.

How do you keep informed on best practice in biosecurity?

“Biosecurity has almost always existed in some sense but its importance and prominence has definitely risen over the years,” Paul says.

A greater awareness of biosecurity through increased training and education has ensured that principles are diligently followed by Paul, his employees, and anyone else entering a farm.

The chicken industry has had in place for many years a detailed set of procedures to manage biosecurity risks on farms (see National Farm Biosecurity Manual for Chicken Growers), and implementation of biosecurity practices is a part of everyday business for an Australian chicken farm. The National Biosecurity Manual for Chicken Growers is currently being reviewed by the ACMF to ensure the recommended measures are still relevant, particularly since the significant Avian Influenza outbreaks in the EU and USA in the past couple of years.

An overview of chicken farm biosecurity has been turned into an online video (www.youtube.com/watch?v=jJK4wRQq8o0) and other resources can be found on the ACMF website (www.chicken.org.au) and the Australian Farm Biosecurity website (www.farmbiosecurity.com.au).

 

Four key facts about Australian meat chickens

With Christmas and a new year just around the corner, it seems a good time to remind readers of some of the key facts about Australian meat chickens, including what they look like and how they are reared.

Since this is about the chickens themselves, I’m going to focus on four key facts…the ones that in visual depictions and in words meat chickens are most often misrepresented.

Key Facts Infographic

1. In Australia, if its red or brown, it’s not a meat chicken

How often do you see news articles or other stories about the Australian chicken industry with images depicting red or brown coloured chickens (often in cages as well, another sign that they’ve got the wrong bird; more on that later).
Well, guess what? Those red or brown birds are almost certainly egg laying hens, not meat chickens.

Current Australian meat chicken strains are almost exclusively white feathered – at least they are after they shed their fluffy yellow baby down, a process which starts from about a week of age.

Why are they white? Well, partly it’s to do with the original breeds that were selected to be crossed to create a heavier, meatier chicken hybrid strain specifically for meat production. These efforts commenced in the 1950s when white Plymouth Rock chickens were crossed with white Cornish chickens to produce the original hybrid meat chicken strains. However, white feathering has, in itself, been seen as a desirable characteristic for a meat chicken (and has generally been preferentially selected for over the years) because it results in a more visually appealing carcass. As it is almost impossible to remove 100% of pin feathers from all birds during processing, and because coloured feathers contrast so much with the skin colour, they are undesirable from a customer appeal perspective. It’s worth noting that it’s conceivable that different coloured breeds of meat chicken may be adopted in Australia in the future, but for now, pretty much all meat chickens in Australia are white.

In appearance, today’s meat chickens also look ‘chunkier’ than egg laying chickens as they have been bred, using conventional genetic selection techniques, to carry more meat.

For more information about the breeds used by the two industries see my earlier blog: meat chickens vs laying chickens.

2. Both male and female chickens are used

Both male and female chickens are used to produce chicken meat, as is the case right around the world.

Unlike the case for the egg industry, where only hens are required to lay the eggs that are sold for human consumption, both male and female meat chickens can be, and are grown for meat and are equally valued by the chicken meat industry.

More information on the differences between male and female meat chickens in terms of how they look or how they grow can be found in a previous blog: Are meat chickens male or female?

3. No hormones are used

How many times have you heard people talk about hormones in chicken meat? …that hormones are ‘fed’ to chickens? … that the hormones in chicken meat are causing an epidemic of early maturity/puberty in our young kids today?
Well, guess what? All the above are simply UNTRUE!
The origin of the “hormones in chicken” myth, and why they are neither used or useful in chicken production are explained in the blog: The Hormone Myth.

4. Meat chickens are never reared in cages

Australian meat chickens are grown on the floor of large sheds or barns. The floor of the barn will always be covered with a bedding material (the industry calls this bedding ‘litter’), which comprises some form of absorbent material, for example wood shavings, rice hulls or chopped straw.

If you would like to get an idea of what an Australian chicken farm looks like, there are plenty of photos on the ACMF website of both the exterior and inside a typical chicken shed (see http://www.chicken.org.au/page.php?id=200&gallery=Broiler%20Farm for some examples).

What about the photos you see in the media and elsewhere of chickens confined to cages? They are photos of egg laying chickens. Cages are often used in the egg industry.

For more explanation of how Australian meat chickens are housed, have a look at this earlier blog: Meat chickens and cages?

Thanks for your interest in my blog this year and for sharing it with your online communities.

Wishing all my blog readers and their loved ones a safe and happy Christmas. Chook Chat will return in February 2017.

Are meat chickens male or female?

The simple answer to this commonly asked question is: “both”.

Both male and female chickens are used to produce chicken meat. That’s the case right around the world.

Unlike the case for the egg industry, where only hens are required to lay the eggs that are sold for human consumption, both male and female meat chickens can be and are grown for meat and are equally valued by the chicken meat industry. This is just one of many differences between the two industries…. other differences include that meat chickens are never grown in cages and come from completely different breeds of chickens than egg laying chickens (for more information about the breeds used by the two industries see my earlier blog: no cages for meat chickens).

While it’s not possible to know whether the meat that you buy has come from a male or a female chicken (they will look and taste the same), roughly 50% of the meat chickens grown in Australia will be males and 50% females.

Are they grown differently? Do they look different?

These days, both male and female meat chickens are generally grown together in the same barns. Indeed, it’s impossible to distinguish between them when they are day old chicks delivered to farms around Australia. However, from about 30 days of age physical differences between the two sexes start to emerge, and by the time they are collected for processing for human consumption (which is before they have reached sexual maturity), it is possible to differentiate between young male and female meat chickens in a flock.

Males are a bit ‘meatier’ in their breasts, their legs and feet are thicker and their combs and wattles (the red floppy fleshy bits on top of their head and below their chin respectively) are bigger, brighter and more noticeable.

Blog Sketch_MaleFemale Chickens_160822F (002)

Male chickens tend to grow a bit faster, and at the same age will be a bit bigger than their female counterparts. Therefore, while the ratio of males to females when they hatch is roughly 50:50 (slightly more males, for some reason), when we look at which of the sexes contributes the most meat, it probably works out more like and 55% from males : 45% for females.

Are any of the meat chicks that hatch not placed on farms?

A small percentage of chicks (less than 1%) that hatch may be too weak or otherwise unfit to survive the first few days after hatching, and it is the responsibility of hatchery staff to identify these and euthanise them at the hatchery so that they do not suffer.

All fit and healthy day old meat chickens that are hatched are sent out to farms.

Male or female? Can you pick the difference?

The meat chickens in the foreground of the photos below are the same age and from the same flock. Can you tell what sex they are?

Male and female-1

If you are interested in hearing more from the industry then follow our monthly blog posts and regular #MythBustingMonday tweets @chookinfoline

The Chicken Family Tree

In 2016, Australian chicken farms will produce over 590 million meat chickens. But where do they come from?

It may be obvious, but it’s something most people don’t think about – every meat chicken has a set of parents, and those parents have their own parents, and so on up the line. But where are these parents, grandparents and great grandparents? Where are they kept and what do they look like? And how does the whole chicken breeding and multiplication process work?

This is the story of the Australian meat chicken’s family tree…and it starts, not here in Australia, but overseas in the nucleus breeding operations of the world’s two largest poultry genetics companies.

Our chicken genetics come from overseas

Almost all of Australia’s meat chickens are derived from two large international poultry genetics companies – Aviagen and Cobb – and the specific hybrid breeds used here (referred to as ‘Ross’ and ‘Cobb’) are pretty much the same as are used right around the world. Because of the size of their breeding operations, and therefore the numbers of birds and flocks they can maintain and are therefore available to select from, these genetics companies have powerful selective breeding programs and are able to make significant improvements to the genetic potential of their breeds at each generation. We call the genetic flocks they maintain the ‘nucleus’ breeding flocks – and it’s all achieved using conventional selective breeding techniques.

In a previous blog (see selective breeding), I described how selective breeding works, why it’s done, and what attributes the breeding companies select for.

How do we get these genetics into Australia?

New genetic lines of meat chickens developed by the international breeding companies are imported, under strict quarantine, as fertile eggs. Typically, there might be, say, 12,000 fertile eggs in a single importation, and 2 – 3 new importations each year for each major breed. These fertile eggs are hatched out in quarantine stations in Australia before being released to breeder farms. We refer to this generation as the Great Grandparents (GGPs) of the meat chickens that are for eating. In actuality, at any importation there are a variety of different lines introduced. It’s a little complicated to explain, but this is done to provide for optimal attributes in the male and female lines of later generations, and to capture hybrid vigour in later generations. A little more on that later.

And what breeding happens in Australia?

The GGPs that come out of quarantine stations are housed in highly biosecure farms around Australia and themselves go on to produce fertile eggs that are hatched to produce the next generation – the Grandparent (GP) generation. The Grandparents are then used to produce a Parent (P) generation, and finally these Parents are mated to produce fertile eggs that hatch to become the ultimate generation – the 590 million meat chickens that are used for meat consumption annually.

At each breeding step, two things happen. Firstly, there are different breeding lines crossed to produce crossbred male and female lines for the next breeding generation and, secondly, the number of birds in the subsequent generation is multiplied up. Once mature (at about 20 weeks of age) each breeder hen can produce about 130 offspring in a single year.

The whole process is represented in the infographic below. This shows how the numbers of individual birds in each generation steadily increases through to the ultimate meat chicken generation, and – voila! – we end up with 590 million meat chickens.

ChookChat_Infographic#7_Final

Why do we import new Great Grandparents? Why don’t we just use existing meat chickens to breed more of the same?

The answer to the first question is simple….we import new chicken genetics on an ongoing basis because the strains are improving all the time. We would fall behind the rest of the world, and fail to deliver the benefits that ongoing selection offers to consumers, if we didn’t do so.

And while the meat chicken generation is perfectly capable of going on to maturity and themselves produce offspring, they are generally not used for breeding. The reason why they aren’t used is that, as I mentioned previously, several different genetic lines are brought in at each new importation, each of which has specific characteristics desired in the next generation. These lines are then crossed to produce a subsequent generation which differs again from the one before…and so on. The use of crossbreeding is common in animal production – it creates a stronger, more robust progeny due to the principle of ‘hybrid vigour’, whereby the robustness and health of the cross is greater than the average of their parents. It’s the opposite of inbreeding – a concept people may be more familiar with. The greater the genetic differences between the parents, the more to gain from hybrid vigour. In the case of the Parents of the ultimate meat chicken generation, the male and female parent lines each also bring their own characteristics – the male, good muscling and body weight, and the breeder hen the capacity to lay plenty of fertile eggs to be hatched into meat chickens.

So the meat comes from Australian chickens?

Yes – the chicken meat available across Australia is almost exclusively from meat chickens grown in Australia, even though their ancestors may have come from other parts of the world. They are genuine “fourth generation” Australian meat chickens.

But… what comes first?

Well, the above may not answer the age old rhetorical question “what comes first…the chicken or the egg?” but I hope it helps to explain a little about the breeding processes required to deliver the 590 million meat chickens required to meet the demands of Australia’s chicken meat consumers each year.

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.

Poultry at the Sydney Royal Show

The Steggles Commercial Meat Chicken Pairs Competition at the Royal Agricultural Society’s Sydney Royal Easter Show just keeps going from strength to strength!

Each year, schools from around NSW get the chance to test their understanding of how meat chickens are grown, and just how much needs to be done and how well they need to be looked after in order to grow out to a size that they could be processed for human consumption.

The schools’ competition process was as follows:

  • All schools got exactly the same chickens; all chickens are from the same hatch.
  • All of the chicks were provided by Baiada Poultry, who markets chicken under the brands Steggles and Lilydale.
  • After six weeks in their care, schools got to select 2 female chickens and 2 male chickens to send to the Show for judging.
  • The chickens were judged by experts from Baiada Poultry on the opening day of the Show.

This year, 96 schools from around NSW took up the challenge….and challenging it was! The weeks leading up to the Show this year were particularly hot, which made keeping the chickens at the ideal temperatures and environmental conditions for optimal health particularly tricky – indeed, the judges were able to see in this year’s entries the impact of those conditions, with many entries not able to sustain adequate growth and bird vigour.

In selecting their winners, the judges take into account factors such as how well the birds have grown, how ’meaty’ they are, their overall health and vigour, whether they have any leg or feet issues that are indicative of sub-optimal housing or litter conditions, and also how similar in appearance the birds in each  pair are. All of these factors are important, not only commercially, but from a bird welfare perspective, so they are some of the same criteria used by the commercial industry to monitor how well flocks are performing in the field and how well they are cared for by commercial growers.

Above: The ACMF Assistant Executive Director, Dr Kylie Hewson and Executive Director Dr Vivien Kite, recording the judges’ comments.

Above: The ACMF Assistant Executive Director, Dr Kylie Hewson and Executive Director Dr Vivien Kite, recording the judges’ comments.

One unique aspect of this competition is that, not only are the pairs of chickens judged live, but they are also later processed and judged as carcases.

Above: Judge Jorge Ruiz from Baiada Poultry has his hands full judging the best female pair of carcases.

Above: Judge Jorge Ruiz from Baiada Poultry has his hands full judging the best female pair of carcases.

The standout pair of the competition for the judges this year was the male pair entered by Elderslie High School, Narellan – not only was this pair the clear winners in the live judging, but also went on to win the Best Meat Bird Pair in the carcase competition. Elderslie High School also exhibited the Best Commercial Meat Bird female pair, but it was the very even female pair prepared by Muswellbrook High School, Muswellbrook, that really impressed the judges when the feathers were off, clearly taking out the award of best female pair in the carcase section.

Feedback from schools has been that this competition presents a great opportunity for students to get to learn a bit about the industry, and also to gain an appreciation of how much thought, preparation, care and attention to detail in many areas (such as the right feed, the right environment, the right amount of ventilation, the right temperature, the right litter and optimal management of it), is required to successfully grow out commercial meat chickens.

All schools should be congratulated on ‘having a go’; we hope to see you back next year.

Thanks must go to dedicated judges from Baiada (Jorge Ruiz and John Howard) who did an incredible job sorting out the winners. Also, to the RAS of NSW for its support for the competition, and Giglio’s Fresh Chicken for processing the birds.

A particularly big thanks to Steggles for its ongoing support and sponsorship of this major annual event, which just keeps growing in popularity and reach.

The Show may just come around once a year, but there is a range of educational materials for school children available year round from the ACMF. These include an educational DVD, which can be ordered from the ACMF’s website (http://www.chicken.org.au/page.php?id=206) and an information book called “The Story of Chicken” which is available to schools on request at http://www.chicken.org.au/page.php?id=239.

Hatchery to Home

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

Schools battle it out over chickens

Schools battle it out at Sydney Royal Show Commercial Meat Chicken Pairs competition

Just before Easter this year, I was delighted to be able to serve as a steward in the Royal Agricultural Society of NSW’s annual commercial meat chicken pairs competition at the Sydney Royal Easter Show. Sponsored by Steggles, this competition pits schools against each other to see how well they can grow meat chickens and how close to commercial industry standards they can get in their own facilities.

Steggles generously provides the day old meat chicks for all schools who sign up for this competition – all schools start with the same breed and number of day old commercial meat chicks, from the same hatch. Its then up to them to source feed and provide their chicks with the care, housing, feed and water and conditions necessary to grow out to six weeks of age, at which point they are ready to go to Homebush to compete!

Poultry Show

The RAS of NSW Royal Easter Show Poultry Pavilion. Congratulations and thanks to the RAS of NSW and its Poultry Section members for organising and hosting this terrific competition, Steggles for sponsoring it, and Giglio Fresh Chicken for processing the birds.

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