Poultry welfare, health and efficiency in production

M.S. Dawkins - Department of Zoology, University of Oxford, UK


The demand for chicken meat continues to rise across the world, leading to calls for greater efficiency and sustainable intensification. This has implications for poultry welfare through potential conflicts between welfare and economics.

Important new developments are use of technology that allows continuous monitoring of poultry health and welfare, higher standards of data analysis and research aimed at both finding solutions to the many pressures on the poultry industry and showing the economic benefits of good welfare.

A concern over how to feed the rising human population while at the same time minimizing the effect on the environment has led to calls for agriculture to become more ‘sustainably intensive’ and more efficient. The human population is projected to be at least 9 billion by 2050 and the current trend is for the consumption of meat and dairy products to keep on rising as people become wealthier and want what they see as a better diet. Chickens are already, at over 60 billion killed each year, the most commonly consumed animal and projected to overtake pork by tonnage as well as numbers by 2020, with most of the increase is expected to occur in SE Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.

Modern breeds of ‘broilers’ are already highly efficient producers of protein due to a combination of diet, management and, in particular, selective breeding for high juvenile growth rate, breast meat yield and efficiency of food conversion. Many broilers currently convert 3kg of food into 2 kg of meat (a Feed Conversion Ratio of 1.5) and some forecasts are for chickens to achieve FCRs of 1.2, making them by far the most efficient terrestrial converters of feed to meat, far more efficient than pigs or cows. However, selective breeding for such efficient feed conversion has already had side-effects on the health and poultry welfare including susceptibility to cardiovascular disease and lameness. Selective breeding for fast juvenile growth rate has also had knock-on effects on the welfare of the parent birds (‘breeders’). Without feed restriction, these breeder birds rapidly become obese, have locomotory problems, the males have reduced fertility. While these negative symptoms can be avoided by restricting the amount of food that the growing breeders receive, this is often only 25-50% of what the birds would consume if fed ad libitum and raises welfare problems of its own since birds exhibit signs of chronic or metabolic hunger. Furthermore, as broiler growth has continued to increase, the degree of feed restriction needed to keep broiler breeders on a healthy growth trajectory has also increased.

These findings raise serious questions about what will happen to the chickens welfare in the ever more efficient agriculture of the future. Poultry breeding programmes based on economically important production traits have already been held responsible for reduced welfare in both broilers and breeders over the last 50 years and so poultry welfare looks to be under continuing if not increasing threat over the next 50. As the most widely eaten animal in the world, acceptable to most cultures and widely seen as healthy, nutritious food for humans, poultry are in the front line for efforts to make them even more efficient as meat producers – to grow faster with less food, less water and less space. But what will this do for the welfare of the birds themselves? Will breeding for greater efficiency inevitably mean compromising their welfare? Are there limits as to how far we can push selective breeding, dietary improvements and intensive management before socially unacceptable limits to welfare are reached?

Economic benefits of good poultry welfare

If poultry welfare is seen as an isolated cause, setting itself up in opposition to these other major concerns then there is a very real danger that it will have only a low priority in the more efficient, more environmentally sensitive agriculture of the future. It will be affordable by only a small minority of relatively wealthy people with particular views about animal ethics. However, if the case can be made for the economic, human health and environmental benefits of high standards of animal welfare, then welfare becomes a necessary and commercially important part of sustainable food production worldwide. In the same way that ecologists increasingly make the case for conserving habitats and preventing the loss of biodiversity by putting a monetary value on the ‘services’ or ‘natural capital’ that a healthy environment provides, such as water retention, soil fertility, pollination and tourist attractions, so the business and other benefits of animal welfare need to be drawn out far more clearly than they have been up to now.

Healthy, high welfare animals bring a range of commercial benefits such as lowered mortality, reduced food waste, higher quality products, lower costs of medication, but these benefits have not yet been sufficiently appreciated or even documented. Also, too much emphasis has been put on the willingness of consumers to pay extra for high welfare. However, consumer preferences are too fickle and too price dependent to ensure that farmers can invest in good welfare unless good welfare has other gains so that producers to see the long term financial benefits of poultry welfare. Such benefits are much more likely to appeal to producers in countries struggling to feed their own human populations or in cultures where attitudes to animals are different from those in richer countries.

Making the case for good welfare as part of the sustainable, efficient poultry production needs at least two components:

a) An agreed and workable definition of good welfare.

b) Better ways of measuring and assessing welfare so that its financial advantages can be more clearly evaluated in relation to other priorities such as human health, animal health, environmental protection, reduction in antibiotic use and financial gain.

Defining animal welfare

Although there are many different definitions of good welfare, the simplest and most straightforward is that animals are healthy and have what they want. This two-category definition has the advantage that it covers what most people mean by good welfare, it is easily understood by everyone, whether they are consumers, producers or scientists and above all, it directs attention away from what well-meaning people think is good for animal welfare towards the what we actually need to know about the animals needs. It also encompasses many other definitions. For example, many people have argues that good welfare must include the ability of the animal to behave ‘naturally’, using naturalness as a criterion of welfare (REFS). But under this definition, natural behaviour would only be included as a necessary part of good welfare if it could be shown that the opportunity to do the natural behaviour a) improves the animal’s health and/or b) is something the animal wants or chooses to do. If it is neither, it is difficult to argue that the animals welfare has been improved, however natural it is. Thus ‘natural’ behaviour (like ‘stress’ hormones or other criteria of welfare) is neither excluded nor included in the definition of good welfare. It has to earn its place by showing that it fulfils the requirements of either or both of the two categories.

A further advantage of this definition is that it includes health as part of the definition and so makes it particularly easy to show the commercial benefits of good welfare, as losses through disease are an obvious financial threat to the industry.

Technology to measure and assess poultry welfare

Poultry producers across the world are faced with a raft of different pressures in addition to commercial ones. They have to satisfy national and international standards of food safety and environmental protection. They have to control disease but are under pressure to reduce antibiotic use. They have to meet rising costs of feed, land and labour and still improve the welfare of their birds. An important way forward must be to find ways in which producers can, if possible, meet all these goals at the same time. We need new approaches to research, to understand the multiple problems that producers face and systematically set about finding ways of reducing all of them. For example, although there may have been conflicts between breeding birds for increased production and good welfare in the past, we now need to look to breeding programmes and management systems that lead to greater efficiency and also protect or even improve animal welfare. For example, selection for traits such as increased disease resistance; leg strength and liveability can actually improve it. By broadening the selection criteria of breeding programmes it may be possible to reduce the apparent conflict and achieve a wider range of goals.

Breeding companies now increasingly incorporate poultry health and welfare goals alongside economic ones into their breeding programs and use a variety of traits such as leg health and feather cover, as well as meat yield and feed conversion efficiency to select their breeding birds.

While good stockmanship remains essential even to intensive poultry production, there is now an increasingly important role for automated measures of welfare, allowing continuous assessment of large commercial flocks and so lead to more effective management. For example, smartphone cameras inside broiler chicken houses are able to detect flocks with a high proportion of lame birds, using simple measures of optical flow. Optical flow detects the movement patterns or ‘flow’ of chicken flocks as they move around a house. Flocks with a high incidence of birds with poor gaits (3,4,or 5 on the Bristol Gait score ) not only have a lower mean optical flow, they also show a higher skew (deviation of the mode from the mean and a higher kurtosis (indicating odd or unusual movement). Lame flocks are not made up of birds that are uniformly lame. The system is able to detect flocks that are likely to end up with a high % mortality and high levels of hock burn as measured in the slaughter plant. The same technology even allows prediction of which flocks will have final levels of hock burn measured at the slaughter plant when the birds are as young as 3 days old. Skewness and kurtosis (both measures of heterogeneity or lack of uniformity of movement in a flock) are particularly informative of flock health. A depressed mean rate of movement suggests that a flock may be less healthy than average but a raised kurtosis definitely indicates that the flock needs attention. Optical flow analysis is also able to predict which young flocks of egg-layers are most likely to develop serious feather damage in later life.

Good flock management is likely to be improved by having good current measures of the welfare state of a flock and even more so by being able to predict problems at a very early stage before they become serious and when interventions are still possible.

However even greater improvements in flock management with consequent improvements in both efficiency and welfare are possible by improving the analysis of the data already collected by producers, such as records of mortality, culls, water use, vaccination, temperature and humidity. The collection of such data is good commercial practice for many companies but the data is often scattered (some on paper, some electronic) and data from different sources (breeding farm, hatchery, growing farms, slaughter plant) are often not brought together. Much greater use of this data, with better analysis could give valuable insight into practices that affect welfare, disease and efficiency could be a great resource, allowing producers to see what works and what does not and just what financial gains are apparent from different practices.
From Australian Poultry Sci Symp.