Avian Welfare – Towards the chicken of the future

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When it comes to animal welfare, poultry farming really is a tough topic to write about. Couple of 10.000 animals kept in one place and incredibly big barns don’t leave their best impressions while one’s visit for the first time. Of course, from an economical point of view this is the most effective way of raising chicken while satisfying the demand for affordable meat all over the world. Keeping that in mind we shouldn’t forget about those welfare problems due to the last decades of domestication and breeding to achieve faster growing bodies, a more effective digestion and more meat and weight per animal. To find new ways concerning animal welfare John R. Hutchinson started an interesting research project, which is not just about the environment inside or outside the barn. He wants to know what is going on in the animal itself. Worth a look!

For my German readers animal welfare in poultry farming isn’t new. Two years ago Wiesenhof, the leading poultry producer in Germany, launched a new “product” so to speak. Less animals per barn, a winter garden the animals can use without being really outside and getting infected and a few toys to play with make this a lot more comfortable, compared to conventionel poultry farming. Maybe Jamie Oliver is the biggest supporter of animal welfare in poultry farming in the UK – there it is the RSPCA-Label – which is pretty close to the concept developed by Wiesenhof.

Unfortunately this is only a little part of the whole production. In the Netherlands scientists and the poultry industry decided to go a step further. Instead of trying and testing new ways of farming with a plus of welfare while the conventional chicken still dominates the market with about 90%, they’re creating a complete new standard. I don´t know this standard in detail, but trust me – it won’t be too different from the others. Races taking more time to grow are something, all those concepts and the new standard have in common – in my opinion the most important point in avian welfare. I’ll come to that later.

As i mentioned above, the domesticated birds are commonly selected for rapid growth rates and increased muscle mass. Unfortunately the combination of these traits have led to a couple of health problems, you can also see while entering a barn one or two days before slaughtering. The chickens can barely move – not just because there are so many, but due to their bodyweight. They take only six weeks of growing to reach a slaughter mass of almost 3kg, but their skeletons aren’t able keep up. As one result, broilers suffer from lameness, leg weakness and heart failure. Time to mention John R. Hutchinson here. He introduces himself “as a biologist originally from the USA who now resides in the UK as a dual citizen, and a Professor of Evolutionary Biomechanics at The Royal Veterinary College” on his research website. He had the great idea to learn more about the development in poultry.

This is how Hutchinson and his colleagues describe their research:

We are developing a new scientific framework for understanding how the bodies of broilers change as they grow, focusing on the functions of the legs and their muscles during standing and walking, and the functions of the chest muscles during breathing when standing, sitting and walking.

Quite interesting: the research doesn’t require real animals. Just at the beginning they are needed for taking photos. Later, 3D computer simulations will do the job to find out…

…what selective breeding has done to the detailed anatomy of broilers and how this has affected their functional abilities is pivotal to any solution to the two related crises of leg and lung health in broilers. Furthermore, there may be an optimal body structure (such as larger legs, different breast muscle distribution) at some point early in chicken growth.

Maybe they’ll find linkages in their study:

Our study would provide a new understanding of the linkages between anatomy, growth, standing and moving, breathing and metabolic energy consumption in broiler chickens that would enable us to forge a new way of assessing which chickens move and breathe the best and why. This would help scientists, veterinarians and industry to work together to promote better broiler health and welfare while still feeding the world.

Concepts and new standards in livestock concerning avian welfare will be become more important in the future, that’s for sure. But the demand for affordable low-priced meat won’t decrease – maybe we will observe even an increasing demand in countries like India for example. Establish avian welfare in conventional farming without facing much higher food prices – that is why Hutchinson’s research is so important in my opinion.


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Wissenschafts- und Agrarblogger seit 2009 – eher zufällig, denn als „Stadtkind“ habe ich zur Landwirtschaft keine direkten Berührungspunkte. Erste Artikel über Temple Grandin und ihre Forschungen zum Thema Tierwohl wurden im Blog dann allerdings meiner überwiegend ebenfalls nicht landwirtschaftlichen Leserschaft derart positiv aufgenommen, dass der Entschluss zu einer stärkeren Beschäftigung mit der Landwirtschaft gefallen war. Auch spätere Besuche bei Wiesenhof und darauf folgende Artikel konnten die Stimmung nicht trüben. Seit 2015 schreibe ich auch gelegentlich für das DLG-Blog agrarblogger.de, teile meine Erfahrung in der Kommunikation als Referent und trage nebenbei fleißig weitere Literatur zum Thema Tierwohl zusammen. Auf Twitter bin ich unter twitter.com/roterhai unterwegs.

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