Mass depopulation of laying hens in whole barns with liquid carbon dioxide: evaluation of welfare impact

Appropriate emergency disaster preparedness is a key priority for agricultural agencies to allow effective response to serious avian disease outbreaks. There is a need to develop rapid, humane, and safe depopulation techniques for poultry that are widely applicable across a range of farm settings. Whole barn depopulation with carbon dioxide (CO(2)) has been investigated as a humane and efficient means of killing large numbers of birds in the event of a reportable disease outbreak. It has also been considered as a method for depopulating barns containing end-of-lay hens, particularly when there is limited local slaughter and rendering capacity. Determining the best method of humanely killing large flocks of birds remains problematic and is being investigated by a coordinated international effort. While whole barn depopulation using CO(2) inhalation has been explored, physiologic responses of chickens have not been characterized in field settings and assessment of animal welfare is hampered without this information. In this study, 12 cull laying hens were surgically instrumented with telemetry transmitters to record electroencephalographs, electrocardiographs, body temperature, and activity during 2 large-scale field CO(2) euthanasia trials of end-of-lay hens. The day following surgery, instrumented hens were placed in barns with other birds, barns were sealed, and animals were killed by CO(2) inhalation delivered via a specially designed liquid CO(2) manifold. Instrumented birds were monitored by infrared thermography, and ambient temperature, CO(2), and O(2) concentrations were recorded. Results from these studies indicate that instrumented hens lost consciousness within 2 min of CO(2) levels reaching 18 to 20 per cent. Mild to moderate head shaking, gasping, and 1 to 2 clonic muscle contractions were noted in hens before unconsciousness; however, brain death followed rapidly (<5 min). Evaluation of welfare costs and benefits suggest clear advantages over catching and transporting cull hens for slaughter. The financial costs with this method are greater, however, than those estimated for traditional slaughter techniques. Results of these studies are being used to develop national protocols for whole barn depopulation of hens by CO(2) inhalation. The study is from the Department of Pathobiology, University of Guelph, Guelph, Canada.

Turner PV, Kloeze H, Dam A, et al. Poult Sci 2012; 91(7): 1558-1568.