Feature: How Hennovation, an EU funded project, helped improve hen welfare in the UK

By Melanie Jenkins

Muddy boots research is the driving force behind the Hennovation project, which aims to put power into farmers’ hands through practice-led innovation. Two free range egg producers explain why they got involved and the impact of their project. 

The Hennovation project is a farmer-led approach looking into two main aspects of chicken welfare; injurious feather pecking and end of lay during transport and at abattoirs. “It was about farmers working together with key stakeholders to improve welfare and efficiencies,” explains Simon Street, south west project farmer. “It was critical to the dream of the project that it was farmer-led.” Though the project targets these welfare issues, there was also the opportunity to search out and implement new ideas to help make each business more efficient and sustainable.

Street and Cornwall farmer Len Olds used the project to look at what benefits could be gained from introducing Bactocell – a gut flora stabiliser – to their feed. Street farms 63,000 free-range layers at Longlands Business Park, Collumpton, Devon, supplying Paul Crocker, while Olds has 13,600 free-range layers at Corn Hill Farm, Camborne, and supplies Waitrose.

“We decided to focus on nutrition and the potential use of a feed additive to improve gut health,” explains Street. “Ultimately, if you feel good on the inside, you will look good on the outside.” The probiotic can reportedly convert non-digestible complex carbohydrates into L(+) lactic acid. “This means it plays an important part in the microflora balance, intestinal system maturity and digestive efficiency of the birds.”

Always interested in experimenting and pushing boundaries, Olds got involved to help move the industry forward. “With chickens you can see the results of different management daily through egg production.”

The Hennovation project, funded by the EU Commission, helped Street and Olds part-fund their own project, covering the cost of any veterinary inspections, taking samples, and the probiotic itself. However, all the extra time put into weighing and measuring was down to them and this was at times hindered by every day farm operations. “Sometimes, rushing from one job to another, you just didn’t have time to do testing when it was needed.”

Both Street and Olds had two free-range poultry sheds becoming available for a November 2016 start, so they managed to create one trial and one control shed each.

To measure the benefits of the probiotic they looked at egg production, egg weight, hen weight, mortality, hen condition and overall costs, explains Olds. “We also wanted to measure the gut health, using the villi and crypt in the intestine. The longer the villi fingers the more surface area for the gut and the more efficient it should be at absorbing nutrients.” The shallower the crypts the better, as these produce new absorptive and goblet cells that migrate up the villi.

 “The ratio between the crypts and height of the villi should give an indication of how good the gut health is, which we could compare to the control shed.”

Three chickens were taken from each shed on two occasions, at week 19 and week 27. With vet Stuart Young from Mount Vets, they measured the three parts of the gut; the duodenum, the jejunum and the ileum. “At post mortem these three sections of the gut were cut out from three birds from each shed,” says Olds.

Unfortunately, the results were not conclusive, but better jejunum ratios showed that the Bactocell was doing something positive within the gut. “In hindsight I think we didn’t have enough samples but we didn’t want to cull too many birds as these are part of our businesses.”

Even so, the production results were extremely pleasing. In Street’s Bactocell shed, mortality was more than 3% lower than his control shed at 6.2%, and the hen weight held better during disease challenges throughout the trial at around 1800g from week 26 onwards. The Bactocell shed also had less feather pecking, with a feather score of two against a control of four. Feed conversion was marginally better, with the birds consuming 125g/head/day, and treated hens produced 297 eggs per hen over the 56-week trial while the control shed produced 282.

At Olds’ farm the treated hens and their eggs also remained heavier throughout the trial.  Those in the control shed produced an average of 261 eggs per hen, compared to 287 eggs per hen in the Bactocell shed – and those extra eggs covered the costs of the probiotic.

Given that they were run in real commercial situations, the trials were affected by a number of disease issues, with avian influenza meaning the birds had to be housed for a while. However both Street and Olds saw advantages from using the additive, with an average cost benefit of £1.06 per hen and £1.31 per hen, respectively.

Hens that received the Bactocell produced more eggs, had a better feed conversion rate and better disease resistance, says Olds. “We felt it was very beneficial for the hens and now use the probiotic across all of our sheds – and I would join in with future projects.”

Street has also rolled out the use of Bactocell across all of his sheds, and hopes that Brexit won’t mean less funding for future projects. “These trials and groups are important for the poultry industry as they give farmers an incentive to constantly improve hen welfare and performance.”

Hennovation Project

The Hennovation Project was an EU Commission funded directive to look at improving hen welfare; particularly feather pecking and end of lay transport. The project ran across five countries (the UK, Sweden, the Netherlands, Spain and the Czech Republic) and consisted of 19 innovation networks, each performing their own individual trials. These were farmer led, but brought together vets, farm advisers, scientists, retailers, packers, processors and certification schemes.

One of the key outcomes of the project has been the production of online guidelines on feather pecking and end of lay, as well as a CPD course. More information on these can be found at:

www.hennovation.eu

 

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