Broiler chickens are prone to a range of complex health and welfare issues. To support informed selection of welfare traits whilst minimising impact on production efficiency and to address a major gap in understanding, we systematically explored associations between health and behavioural indicators of broiler welfare.
One conventional (CNV, n = 350) and two slow-growing broiler breeds (SGH and SGN, respectively n = 400) were reared from hatch in pens of 50 birds. Birds were assessed for health (gait, plumage cover and dirtiness, pododermatitis, hockburn, and leg deviations) at 2.2 kg liveweight according to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Broiler Breed Welfare Assessment Protocol.
Behaviour and resource-use of 10 per cent of birds per pen, on days 29 (all breeds) and 43 (SGH and SGN), was (i) scan sampled every 60 min between three to six and between twelve to fifteen hours after photoperiod onset; and (ii) continuously sampled sequentially from focal birds for 3 min each in a random order, during 15 min observation periods at three and twelve hours after photoperiod onset. Binary logistic generalized linear models were used, to assess respective associations between pen prevalence of each health outcome and (i) pen mean percentage scans of behaviour, and (ii) pen mean frequency and duration per 3 min focal observation of behaviour.
Better growth rate and feed conversion but poorer health outcomes (mortality, gait, pododermatitis, feather cover) were more prevalent in CNV.
Strong associations between behaviour and several heath indicators revealed, (i) increases in side-lying inactive, sitting inactive, and use of the litter relative to other resources, as primary and general indicators of poorer health, and (ii) increases in standing inactive, perch use, walking, Comfort, High Energy and Exploratory behaviour as primary and general indicators of better health. Of these, changes in side-lying, standing inactive, walking, Comfort and High Energy behaviour were particularly sensitive to small differences in health outcomes important for breed acceptance in high-welfare schemes.
Crucially these behavioural measures additionally represent motivational and affective aspects of welfare not captured by health measures and allow opportunity for earlier intervention. Thus, to provide a comprehensive assessment of broiler experience, behaviour should be incorporated into broiler welfare assessments.
Animal. 2021 Jun 10;15(7):100261. doi: 10.1016/j.animal.2021.100261. Online ahead of print.
1The Royal Veterinary College, Hawkshead Lane, Brookmans Park, Hatfield AL9 7TA, United Kingdom. Electronic address: email@example.com.
2The Royal Veterinary College, Hawkshead Lane, Brookmans Park, Hatfield AL9 7TA, United Kingdom.