The viability of the Australian chicken meat industry depends on the implementation of good welfare practices every day, for every flock, and this has been recognised since the start of the commercial industry back in the 1950s. Not only do farmers have an obligation to protect and respect the birds under their care, they also know that providing a high level of care for birds is what their customers want and the community expects, and it also contributes to productivity and a quality product. The livelihood of farmers therefore depends on them providing for good standards of animal welfare
So what is good welfare, and how can research, development and education contribute to ensuring that chickens that are raised for human consumption are kept at high standards of health and welfare?
Past research has demonstrated that good welfare is not achieved by focussing on single factors or meeting discreet design features of the chicken’s environment. Welfare is multi-factorial, and many factors impact on the welfare outcome for flocks of chickens, including weather (especially temperature and humidity), disease and health status, the type and standard of housing provided, access to and quality of feed and water, quality of the management (husbandry and stockmanship) provided by the farmer and air quality; the list goes on and on. All of these are interlinked and need to be managed on a daily basis by farmers – because of this, all of these factors, and combinations of them, have been the focus of past and present research projects.
The Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation (RIRDC; http://www.rirdc.gov.au/) manages the levy funding that the chicken companies provide for research on all aspects of chicken production, including bird welfare.
Determining the standard of welfare achieved without anthropomorphising (to ascribe human form or attributes to), can be incredibly difficult because we can’t ask the chickens directly. Not only do chickens have different needs to us, they meet them differently too. For example, when it’s cold outside a human may put on a jumper, but we know we don’t need to put jumpers on chickens because we know that birds naturally group together to keep warm. So, the focus of welfare research is on providing objective information on what constitutes high welfare and how to achieve, and maintain, it.
Areas of research that are currently being undertaken relate to free range, including how and when birds use the range, and how to reduce the trade-offs between systems, how to measure welfare (particularly trying to identify measures that can be used practically on farm) and how to manage breed traits that potentially impact on welfare (see the Chicken Family Tree blog for more information on chicken breeding: http://www.chicken.org.au/chookchat/the-chicken-family-tree/). There is also research investigating aspects of farm management that can impact chicken welfare such as maintaining the quality of bedding provided to birds, ventilation management and the usefulness of perches.
As agriculture becomes more tech-savvy, the chicken industry too is looking at ways that technology can help farmers manage bird welfare. For example, the RIRDC Chicken Meat Program is looking at early detection of bird welfare issues through monitoring levels and patterns of activity of the flock as a whole that farmers can be alerted to a potential issue.
As any researcher can tell you, there is never an end to research because there is never an end to the possibilities for continual refinement and improvement of practices, particularly as things like technology progress and better ways to do things are discovered.
So the next time you’re enjoying a meal that includes chicken, stop to think about all the researchers that contribute to the quality of life and quality of product that you’re eating and all the effort that is put into keeping it that way – and if you know of anyone that ‘speaks chicken’ I hope they choose a career as a poultry scientist!
*Dr Kylie Hewson is Research Manager of the Chicken Meat Program of RIRDC