No beak trimming for inquisitive hens

Published: 07-03-2016

Curious hens peck less, and that’s important knowledge because a reduction in pecking means less risks when poultry farmers are no longer alloud to keep hens with whole beaks. The layers supplied by Verbeek Hatchery Holland are genetically more inquisitive, less fearful and less inclined to peck. They stem from a selection program conducted by NOVOgen.

NOVOGEN layers enable poultry farmers to stay ahead of the upcoming changes in the Dutch Animals Act. This comprehensive legislation replaces earlier animal treatment laws and regulations, including the Interventions Decree that will ban beak trimming from January 2018.

“This decree, and now the Act, confront poultry famers with a real dilemma,” says Gerrit Morren, product manager at Verbeek Hatchery Holland. “Obsessive pecking is not an exception in modern poultry farming. It can lead to kannibalism and mortality. Pecking can be prevented by laser-trimming the beaks of young chicks. This is a painless procedure, but it is about to be outlawed. One solution is for instance to reduce the number of layers per square meter. But for many farmers, that’s not feasible regarding cost price.”

The decree led Verbeek Hatchery Holland to start looking for an alternative for beak trimming. The Lunteren-based company supplies hatching eggs, day-old chicks and pullets to poultry famers in Europe, Africa and the Ukraine. Verbeek’s hypermodern hatchery is located in the Dutch polder town of Zeewolde. The company can produce 30 million laying hens per year and is one of the largest of its kind in Europe.

Behavioral change
Verbeek and its research partners are looking to behavioral change as a solution to the pecking problem. Even genetically-influenced intestinal health can play a role. Hens with digestive problems experience stress and tend to peck each other more. There are several ways to modify the hens’ behavior: supplying different types of feed, offering diversions, , to name a few. Verbeek’s method is to modify hens’ genetic properties.

“Both genetics and breeding strategies are key to hens’ behavior,” says Morren. “By selecting the pure lines ina group, you can find hens with a friendlier character and use them to breed the next generation. NOVOGEN, our French partner, is a relatively new breeding organization that was the first to select their pure breeding lines for behavior in group housing. The NOVOGEN hens are more curious, less afraid of humans and more self-confident. Rick van Emous, behavioral researcher at the Wageningen University has showed this with independent studies after the introduction of NOVOgen in the Dutch market in 2012. Also, these hens scare less easily during laying, which suggests they feel less stress and fear. Their productivity is high and the quality of their eggs is good.”

Verbeek stopped trimming its NOVOGEN parent stock’s beaks two years ago, and has refrained from trimming ever since. “That was quite a daring step to take, considering the capital investment in these animals,” Morren says. “But we saw a spectacular difference in behavior between NOVOGEN hens and other hens. Meanwhile, about fifty of our customers have ordered NOVOGEN hens with intact beaks. They’ve got confidence in genetics and they believe, like we do, that beak trimming will soon be thing of the past.”

Verbeek Hatchery Holland