By Rachael Porter
There’s increasing pressure on the industry to ban infra-red beak treatment, but why? And what are the alternatives when it comes to preventing injurious feather pecking in flocks?
Infra-red beak treatment – or trimming, as some organisations call it – could be banned in the UK by 2020. It’s already prohibited in Germany and UK producers have been told by Defra that it plans to ban it here. Many believe that this would have serious consequences for the health, welfare and productivity of UK flocks.
“Concern, first and foremost, is for bird welfare,” says BFREPA chairman James Baxter.
“We believe that this treatment serves to protect bird health and welfare by removing the small part of the beak that does the damage when feather pecking occurs,” he adds.
Many producers consider infra-red beak treatment the most important tool in their armoury to prevent and reduce feather pecking. And they are concerned that, if it’s taken away, bird health and welfare will be seriously compromised.
That said, Baxter says that there are many organisations in the wider industry who would like to see the practice banned. “They refer to it as a ‘mutilation’, which we take issue with,” he says.
“As day-old chicks, the birds are vaccinated and the growing point of the very sharp tip of the beak is removed, or rather treated, using an infra-red beam. It shrivels and doesn’t grow. As the bird grows, it has a healthy beak – it can eat and drink and forage normally – but it’s also been ‘dis-armed’, making it more difficult to injure its flock mates if and when feather-pecking behaviour occurs.”
Compassion In World Farming’s research manager Phil Brooke disagrees: “Beak trimming is defined as a mutilation in EU and UK law. Defra states, in its Code of Welfare for Laying Hens, that the aim is for routine beak trimming to stop as soon as reasonably possible. To achieve this, every effort is needed by owners and keepers to reduce injurious pecking in their flocks.
“Research demonstrates that infra-red beak trimming causes pain, and results in chicks eating and drinking less in the days following treatment,” he adds. “The tip of the beak, being a highly sensitive organ, contains nerves and these are damaged by beak-trimming. So, we are in full support of a UK ban on beak trimming.”
The treatment, itself, won’t prevent pecking in the first instance. That’s down to several management- and bird-based factors, including nutrition, environment and breeding. And that’s something that that all sides agree on.
Baxter and Brooke both say that ensuring that the birds’ diet is right will help to reduce the incidence of feather pecking and cannibalism, as birds are not driven to find another source of protein. “Nutrition has a vital role to play. Deficiencies, particularly in amino acids, could result in feather pecking as birds seek the nutrients that they need,” explains Baxter.
He says that stress can also be a trigger. “Flocks can have good feather coverage, with high levels of health and welfare for 30, 40 or even 50 weeks and then suddenly a problem is ‘set off’. Producers can usually pin-point a stressor or a factor that’s acted as the trigger for an escalation in feather pecking.”
Unfortunately, once a few birds start feather pecking then others will join in. The issue can quickly escalate. “Our argument is that, in flocks with untreated beaks, this can be lethal.
Feather pecking injuries that draw blood are also likely to result in infection, which can quickly become fatal in laying hens.
CIWF argues that feather pecking is a sign that the system is inadequate – that’s the acid test. “If you get the system right – and good management and planning is in place – then good bird health and welfare will be the result,” says Brooke. “Excessive feather pecking is a sign that there’s a problem, with the flock management system and environment.
“When all these factors are managed correctly, bird health and welfare standards can be maintained without the need for beak trimming.”
BFREPA says that it’s not that simple: “When birds peck they are expressing their natural behaviour. And even in free-range flocks, with enriched housing and environments, pecking can be a significant problem,” says Baxter.
The Beak Trimming Action Group (BTAG) was set up in 2011, following the deferral of a ban on beak treatment in the UK. It is made up of representatives from animal welfare groups, as well as poultry industry leaders, vets, scientists, retailers and Defra officials.
Trials were also commissioned by this group to see how commercial layers could be managed without the use of beak trimming. Some of those trials were conducted by Bristol University and the results reinforced the view in the egg industry that a ban should not yet go ahead when serious outbreaks of injurious pecking occurred among birds left with their beaks intact.
Further trial work has shown the consequences of leaving beaks intact. A 16,000-bird free range trial flock in East Anglia had to undergo emergency beak trimming after injurious pecking resulted in a mortality rate of 20%. And on another free-range trial unit in Yorkshire the mortality rate hit 15% among birds whose beaks were left intact.
Baxter adds that some organisations believe it is the industry’s problem – but even when producers get it all right, birds still feather peck. “It’s natural behaviour and once it starts other birds copy – we have a responsibility to try and prevent and minimise it.
“Enrichment, nutrition, breeding, planning and management to reduce stress and disruption to the birds. These are all factors that can help to reduce pecking and cannibalism. But pecking is a ‘foraging’ behaviour – it’s a natural behaviour for the bird. So, birds will continue to do that – whatever methods are employed to reduce it. And, inevitably, there will be injuries and mortalities – more so in untreated birds.”
Brooke agrees that pecking is a natural foraging behaviour and insists that if birds have sufficient appropriate foraging opportunities, and management, nutrition and the system is run right, then bird health and welfare can be safeguarded without the need for beak trimming.
“We believe that without a ban, there’s insufficient incentive for the industry and producers to put effective measures into place to prevent feather pecking. We’d like to see a ban introduced and we think that this would incentivise the industry to put other management systems and plans in place to prevent feather pecking.”
He stresses that they’d also call for full support, from vets and other poultry welfare experts, for producers to help them to ensure that all management factors were tailored to maintain bird health and welfare. He says that letting birds range from day one, rather than keeping them inside for several weeks before opening the pop holes, when they arrive as point-of-lay pullets, is just one idea. “It’s all about smooth transitioning and reducing stress. We’d like to see producers working more closely with the breeders and pullet suppliers to reduce stress for the birds, as they move from one unit to another.”
BFREPA chief executive Robert Gooch says that many producers are still questioning why the infra-red procedure should be banned. “We see it as a non-invasive procedure and it actually helps to safeguard bird health and welfare. It doesn’t necessarily stop feather pecking and, as an industry, we are still looking at other factors to help continue to reduce feather pecking. But it certainly helps to reduce injurious pecking.”
Gooch stresses that the industry is always looking at, investing in and implementing ideas to improve bird health and welfare. “Enrichment of housing and the range, nutrition and breeding are all, indeed, part of the solution. Genetics are high on the agenda at the moment.”
The ideal would be to breed a bird without the sharp beak tip. But breeding birds that are better suited to free-range production systems and are less prone to pecking – such as some white-feathered breeds that seems to have a better sense of personal space and don’t tend to bunch together as much – would be a good start.
“We are aware that the systems have evolved, to meet changing and increasing consumer demand, but the hens in those systems have not changed,” adds Gooch. “We must now look to breed birds for high welfare, which also offer good production, and this is an area that’s being explored by pullet breeders.
“What we don’t want to see is a situation where a ban put in place and we don’t have the right birds, systems, plans and programmes to ensure that producers can maintain flock health and welfare.
“No producer wants to stand by and watch their birds rip each other apart. So, for now, we hope that infra-red beak treatment remains as part of an array of management factors that allows producers to run health, high-welfare and productive flocks.”