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Non-cage systems provide laying hens with considerable space allowance, perches and access to litter, thereby offering opportunities for natural species-specific behaviors. Conversely, these typical characteristics of non-cage systems also increase the risk of keel bone and foot pad disorders. The aim of this study was twofold: 1) to investigate if providing ramps between perches (housing factor) reduces keel bone and foot pad disorders and 2) to test for genetic predisposition by comparing 2 different layer hybrids. In a 2 × 2 design, 16 pens were equipped either with or without ramps between perches and nest boxes (8 pens/treatment), and housed with either 25 ISA Brown or Dekalb White birds per pen (in total 200 birds/hybrid). Keel bone injuries and foot health were repeatedly measured via palpation and visual assessment between 17 and 52 wk of age and daily egg production was recorded. The relationships between the dependent response variables (keel bone and footpad disorders, egg production) and independent factors (age, ramps, hybrid) were analyzed using generalized linear mixed models and corrected for repeated measures. Ramps reduced keel bone fractures (F1,950 = 45.80, P < 0.001), foot pad hyperkeratosis (F1,889 = 10.40, P = 0.001), foot pad dermatitis (F1,792 = 20.48, P < 0.001) and bumble foot (F1,395 = 8.52, P < 0.001) compared to pens without ramps. ISA Brown birds sustained more keel bone fractures (F1,950 = 33.26, P < 0.001), had more foot pad hyperkeratosis (F1,889 = 44.69, P < 0.001) and laid more floor eggs (F1,1883 = 438.80, P < 0.001), but had fewer keel bone deviations (F1,1473 = 6.73, P < 0.001), fewer cases of foot pad dermatitis (F1,792 = 19.84, P < 0.001) and no bumble foot as compared to Dekalb White birds. Age, housing and hybrid showed several interaction effects. Providing ramps proved to be very effective in both reducing keel bone and foot pad problems in non-cage systems. Keel bone and foot pad disorders are related to genetic predisposition. These results indicate that adaptation of the housing systems and hybrid selection may be effective measures in improving laying hen welfare.
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