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Sensitivity of the Welfare Quality® broiler chicken protocol to differences between intensively reared indoor flocks: which factors explain overall classification?

  • S. Buijs (a1), B. Ampe (a1) and F. A. M. Tuyttens (a1)

Abstract

There is a large demand for holistic welfare assessment systems that result in a singular balanced summary of welfare. The Welfare Quality® (WQ) broiler protocol summarizes 18 welfare measures into four principles (‘good feeding’, ‘good housing’, ‘good health’ and ‘appropriate behaviour’), which are then integrated into one overall category (‘excellent’, ‘enhanced’, ‘acceptable’ or ‘not classified’). But the protocol is time consuming which hampers implementation. Furthermore, WQ’s aim to assess animal welfare in a wide range of husbandry systems may decrease its ability to discriminate between flocks from the same system. We applied the protocol in the context of intensive indoor rearing to assess whether it discriminated sufficiently between flocks, could be shortened without losing essential information, and provided a balanced summary of welfare. The vast majority of the flocks (88%) received the same overall classification (acceptable) whilst all other flocks received an adjacent classification (enhanced), suggesting poor discriminative capacity. For 95% of the flocks overall classification was explained by two measures only (‘drinker space’ and ‘stocking density’). A system based on these two measures would reduce assessment time from 3.5 h to a few minutes. However, both measures’ validity can be questioned as they are risk factors for poor welfare rather than animal-based outcome measures and they suffer from methodological weaknesses. Furthermore, the possibility for such an extreme simplification raises doubts on whether the overall classification reflects a balanced summary of different welfare aspects. In line with this, overall classification was not affected by replacing single measures within the ‘good health’ and ‘appropriate behaviour’ principles with realistically attainable minima or maxima for intensively reared flocks. Even replacing either of these two principles entirely with their realistically obtainable minimum or maximum did not affect classification. Such insensitivity to change may discourage attempts to improve the welfare of intensively reared flocks when assessments are made based on the overall classification. This calls for an adjustment of the classification system, which is currently being developed by the Welfare Quality Network.

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References

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