Skip to main content Accessibility help

Effects of dark brooders and overhangs on free-range use and behaviour of slow-growing broilers

  • L. M. Stadig (a1) (a2), T. B. Rodenburg (a3) (a4), B. Reubens (a5), B. Ampe (a1) (a2) and F. A. M. Tuyttens (a1) (a2)...


Broiler chickens often make limited use of the free-range area. Range use is influenced by type of shelter available. Range use may possibly be improved by a more gradual transition from the house to the range and by using dark brooders (secluded warm, dark areas in the home pen) that mimic aspects of a broody hen and possibly reduce fearfulness. The aim of this study was to assess effects of dark brooders on fearfulness, free-range use and behaviour later in life. Another aim was to test the chickens’ preference for shelter type and the effects of overhangs outside of the pop holes to provide a gradual transition to the range. Three production rounds, each with 440 Sasso broiler chickens (110/group), were completed. Chicks were housed indoors from days 0 to 25; per round, two groups had access to a dark brooder, whereas the other two groups had conventional IR lamps. Fearfulness was assessed by the open field (OF) and tonic immobility (TI) tests on days 22 to 24 on 25 chicks/group per round. Birds were then moved to four mobile houses from which they could access both grassland with artificial shelter (AS) and short rotation coppice (SRC). Two of the houses had overhangs extending from the pop holes; these were switched between the four houses weekly. Free-range use and behaviour were observed three times daily from Monday to Friday. Dark brooders did not affect results from the OF or TI test, except for jumps in the OF test which tended to occur less often in brooded chicks. Neither dark brooders (34.9% without v. 31.7% with brooder) nor overhangs (32.5% without v. 34.1% with overhangs) influenced the percentage of chickens outside. Chickens showed a clear preference for SRC, range use increased over time in SRC, and more birds ranged farther from the house in SRC. Behaviours of chickens observed outside were mainly influenced by shelter type, age of the birds and distance from the house. Locomotion tended to occur more in the presence of overhangs. Overall, these results could not confirm the hypothesis that dark brooders would decrease fearfulness and thereby increase free-range use. Overhangs also did not improve free-range use, and neither brooders nor overhangs had considerable impact on behaviour of chickens outside. Chickens clearly preferred dense natural vegetation over AS and ranged farther in it, indicating that this type of shelter is more suitable for slow-growing free-range broilers.


Corresponding author


Hide All
Altmann, J 1974. Observational study of behavior: sampling methods. Behaviour 49, 227267.
Bestman, MWP and Wagenaar, JP 2003. F arm level factors associated with feather pecking in organic laying hens. Livestock Science 80, 133140.
Bolhuis, JE, Ellen, ED, Van Reenen, CG, De Groot, J, Ten Napel, J, Koopmanschap, RE, De Vries Reilingh, G, Uitdehaag, KA, Kemp, B and Rodenburg, RB 2009. Effects of genetic group selection against mortality on behavior and peripheral serotonin in domestic laying hens with trimmed and intact beaks. Physiology & Behavior 97, 470475.
Campbell, DL, Hinch, GN, Downing, JA and Lee, C 2016. Fear and coping styles of outdoor-preferring, moderate-outdoor and indoor-preferring free-range laying hens. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 185, 7377.
Campo, JL, Dávila, SG and Gil, MG 2014. Comparison of the tonic immobility duration, heterophil to lymphocyte ratio, and fluctuating asymmetry of chicks reared with or without a broody hen, and of broody and non-broody hens. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 151, 6166.
Chielo, LI, Pike, T and Cooper, J 2016. Ranging behaviour of commercial free-range laying hens. Animals 6, 113,
Dawkins, MS, Cook, PA, Whittingham, MJ, Mansell, KA and Harper, AE 2003. What makes free-range broiler chickens range? In situ measurement of habitat preference. Animal Behaviour 66, 151160.
Dekker, S, Aarnink, A, De Boer, I and Koerkamp, PG 2012. Total loss and distribution of nitrogen and phosphorus in the outdoor run of organic laying hens. British poultry science 53, 731740.
Estevez, I, Newberry, RC and Keeling, LJ 2002. Dynamics of aggression in the domestic fowl. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 76, 307325.
Forkman, B, Boissy, A, Meunier-Salaun, M-C, Canali, E and Jones, RB 2007. A critical review of fear tests used on cattle, pigs, sheep, poultry and horses. Physiology 7 Behavior 92, 340374.
Gilani, AM, Knowles, TG and Nicol, CJ 2012. The effect of dark brooders on feather pecking on commercial farms. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 142, 4250.
Gilani, AM, Knowles, TG and Nicol, CJ 2014. Factors affecting ranging behaviour in young and adult laying hens. British Poultry Science 55, 127135.
Grigor, PN, Hughes, BO and Appleby, MC 1995. Effects of regular handling and exposure to an outside area on subsequent fearfulness and dispersal in domestic hens. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 44, 4755.
Gallup, GG and Suarez, SD 1980. An ethological analysis of open-field behaviour in chickens. Animal Behavior 28, 368378.
Hartcher, KM, Hickey, KA, Hemsworth, PH, Cronin, GM, Wilkinson, SJ and Singh, M 2015. Relationships between range access as monitored by radio frequency identification technology, fearfulness, and plumage damage in free-range laying hens. Animal 10, 847853.
Hegelund, L, Sørensen, JT, Kjær, JB and Kristensen, IS 2005. Use of the range area in organic egg production systems: effect of climatic factors, flock size, age and artificial cover. British Poultry Science 46, 18.
Houdelier, C, Lumineau, S, Bertin, A, Guibert, F, De Margerie, E, Augery, M and Richard-Yris, MA 2011. Development of fearfulness in birds: genetic factors modulate non-genetic maternal influences. PLoS ONE 6, e14604.
Jensen, AB, Palme, R and Forkman, B 2006. Effect of brooders on feather pecking and cannibalism in domestic fowl (Gallus gallus domesticus). Applied Animal Behaviour Science 99, 287300.
Jones, RB 1986. The tonic immobility reaction of the domestic fowl: a review. World’s Poultry Science Journal 42, 8296.
Jones, RB, Blokhuis, HJ and Beuving, G 1995. Open‐field and tonic immobility responses in domestic chicks of two genetic lines differing in their propensity to feather peck. British Poultry Science 36, 525530.
Jones, T, Feber, R, Hemery, G, Cook, P, James, K, Lamberth, C and Dawkins, M 2007. Welfare and environmental benefits of integrating commercially viable free-range broiler chickens into newly planted woodland: a UK case study. Agricultural Systems 94, 177188.
Keeling, L and Jensen, P 1995. Do feather pecking and cannibalistic hens have different personalities? Applied Animal Behaviour Science 44, 257281.
Keer-Keer, S, Hughes, B, Hocking, P and Jones, R 1996. Behavioural comparison of layer and broiler fowl: measuring fear responses. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 49, 321333.
Meltzer, A, Goodman, G and Fistool, J 1982. Thermoneutral zone and resting metabolic rate of growing white leghorn‐type chickens. British Poultry Science 23, 383391.
Nicol, CJ 2015. The behavioural biology of chickens. CABI, Wallingford, UK.
Perré, Y, Wauters, AM and Richard-Yris, MA 2002. Influence of mothering on emotional and social reactivity of domestic pullets. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 75, 133146.
Riber, AB and Guzman, DA 2016. Effects of dark brooders on behavior and fearfulness in layers. Animals 6, 119,
Riber, AB, Nielsen, BL, Ritz, C and Forkman, B 2007. Diurnal activity cycles and synchrony in layer hen chicks (Gallus gallus domesticus). Applied Animal Behaviour Science 108, 276287.
Rodenburg, TB, Uitdehaag, KA, Ellen, ED and Komen, J 2009. The effects of selection on low mortality and brooding by a mother hen on open-field response, feather pecking and cannibalism in laying hens. Animal Welfare 18, 427432.
Rodenburg, TB, Van Krimpen, M, De Jong, I, De Haas, E, Kops, M, Riedstra, B, Nordquist, R, Wagenaar, J, Bestman, M and Nicol, C 2013. The prevention and control of feather pecking in laying hens: identifying the underlying principles. World’s Poultry Science Journal 69, 361374.
Saito, S, Tachibana, T, Choi, Y-H, Denbow, DM and Furuse, M 2005. ICV CRF and isolation stress differentially enhance plasma corticosterone concentrations in layer-and meat-type neonatal chicks. Comparative Biochemistry and Physiology Part A: Molecular & Integrative Physiology 141, 305309.
Sasso 2014. Farmer’s guide to Sasso coloured broiler management. (accessed 25 September 2017).
Suarez, SD and Gallup, GG 1983. Social reinstatement and open-field testing in chickens. Animal learning & behavior 11, 119126.
Shimmura, T, Kamimura, E, Azuma, T, Kansaku, N, Uetake, K and Tanaka, T 2010. Effect of broody hens on behaviour of chicks. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 126, 125133.
Stadig, LM, Rodenburg, TB, Ampe, B, Reubens, B and Tuyttens, FAM 2017a. Effect of free-range access, shelter type and weather conditions on behaviour and welfare of slow-growing broiler chickens. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 192, 1523.
Stadig, LM, Rodenburg, TB, Ampe, B, Reubens, B and Tuyttens, FAM 2017b. Effects of shelter type, early environmental enrichment and weather conditions on free-range behaviour of slow-growing broiler chickens. Animal 11, 10461053.
Van Liere, DW 1991. Function and organization of dustbathing in laying hens. PhD thesis Wageningen University.
Wauters, A-M, Perré, Y, Bizeray, D, Leterrier, C and Richard-Yris, M-A 2002. Mothering influences the distribution of activity in young domestic chicks. Chronobiology International 19, 543559.
Whay, HR, Main, DCJ, Green, LE, Heaven, G, Howel, H, Morgan, M, Pearson, A and Webster, AJF 2007. Assessment of the behaviour and welfare of laying hens on free-range units. Veterinary Record 161, 119128.
Wiepkema, PR and Koolhaas, JM 1993. Stress and animal welfare. Animal Welfare 2, 195218.



Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed