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Outdoor stocking density in free-range laying hens: effects on behaviour and welfare

  • D. L. M. Campbell (a1) (a2), G. N. Hinch (a1), J. A. Downing (a3) and C. Lee (a2)

Abstract

Free-range laying hen systems are increasing within Australia and research is needed to determine optimal outdoor stocking densities. Six small (n=150 hens) experimental flocks of ISA Brown laying hens were housed with access to ranges simulating one of three outdoor stocking densities with two pen replicates per density: 2000 hens/ha, 10 000 hens/ha or 20 000 hens/ha. Birds were provided daily range access from 21 to 36 weeks of age and the range usage of 50% of hens was tracked using radio-frequency identification technology. Throughout the study, basic external health assessments following a modified version of the Welfare Quality® protocol showed most birds were in visibly good condition (although keel damage was increasingly present with age) with few differences between stocking densities. Toenail length at 36 weeks of age was negatively correlated with hours spent ranging for all pens of birds (all r⩾−0.23, P⩽0.04). At 23 weeks of age, there were no differences between outdoor stocking densities in albumen corticosterone concentrations (P=0.44). At 35 weeks of age, density effects were significant (P<0.001) where the eggs from hens in the highest outdoor stocking density showed the highest albumen corticosterone concentrations, although eggs from hens in the 10 000 hens/ha density showed the lowest concentrations (P<0.017). Behavioural observations of hens both on the range and indoors showed more dust bathing and foraging (scratching followed by ground-pecking) was performed outdoors, but more resting indoors (all P<0.001). Hens from the 2000 hens/ha densities showed the least foraging on the range but the most resting outdoors, with hens from the 20 000 hens/ha densities showing the least amount of resting outdoors (all P<0.017). Proportions of dust bathing outdoors tended to differ between the stocking densities (P=0.08). For each of the health and behavioural measures there were differences between pen replicates within stocking densities. These data show outdoor stocking density has some effects on hen welfare, and it appears that consideration of both individual and group-level behaviour is necessary when developing optimal stocking density guidelines and free-range system management practices.

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animal
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