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Beak trimming is a procedure that is used to avoid or minimise injuries from hens pecking each other, sometimes to death (cannibalism). In any housing system for layer hens, but especially in non-cage systems, there is a risk of a cannibalism outbreak. These outbreaks can involve a large number of birds in the flock and can be very difficult to control. Feather pecking and cannibalism are more common in large flocks, such as in commercial egg production, but can also occur in small backyard flocks. They occur regardless of the space available to the hens and are related to a number of factors, including breed, flock management (possibly involving lighting levels) and the bird’s experience at rearing. Feather pecking and cannibalism, once established in a flock, are very difficult to control. Hence there is the need to weigh up the welfare consequences of allowing the feather pecking to continue or to try and prevent/control it by beak trimming.
The RSPCA Approved Farming Scheme standards for layer hens allow beak trimming if the producer, in consultation with the RSPCA Assessor, considers that it is required to avoid pecking injuries or cannibalism outbreaks. In these cases, the risks to welfare from allowing feather pecking and cannibalism to continue are greater than those associated with the beak trimming procedure. To learn more about the RSPCA Approved Farming Scheme visit our website.
When beak trimming is necessary, all birds in the flock are treated to reduce the possible risk to welfare of some of the flock. Only a once-off beak trim in the first week of life of the birds is allowed, and it is limited to removal of the tip of the upper beak. The procedure must be performed by an accredited beak trimmer. It is usually done using an infrared beam.
The RSPCA’s preferred option for the future is genetic selection of strains of hens that have been bred specifically for barn and free-range production and will not require beak trimming. In addition to this, farmers should not rely on beak trimming to control feather pecking, and first make all management and environmental changes and provisions which minimise the risk of feather pecking. These include good management and stockpersonship (some information on management is available here), adequate nutrition and high fibre diets, suitable flooring, no sudden changes in diet or environment, minimising stress and fear, and the matching of rearing and laying environments.
For more information, RSPCA Australia’s scientific report on layer hens may be accessed here https://www.rspca.org.au/layer-hen-welfare