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How can feather pecking be managed in cage-free layer hen systems?

Severe feather pecking is an injurious behaviour performed by birds, where they will vigorously peck at and pull out the feathers of other birds. Outbreaks of severe feather pecking can occur in all types of poultry production systems and in both large-scale commercial flocks and small backyard flocks ​[1]​. The risk of feather pecking is of particular concern in the egg industry because if an outbreak occurs in a large commercial flock, it can be very difficult to control and treat. Where outbreaks occur, it can lead to serious welfare concerns within a flock including victim birds experiencing pain, extensive feather damage and feather loss, injuries, cannibalism, and death ​[1]​.

What is the cause of feather pecking?

The cause of feather pecking outbreaks in layer hen flocks is multifactorial and complex. Feather pecking outbreaks can occur in any poultry housing system; however, there is an increased risk of outbreaks occurring in cage-free housing systems, such as barn and free range ​[1]​. In cage-free housing systems, hens are kept in large groups where each hen has easy access to the many other hens within the flock, whereas in cage housing systems hens are confined in rows of cages with around four to six hens per cage. Some of the factors associated with an increased risk of outbreaks occurring include a lack of appropriate litter provision and misdirected foraging behaviours, increased stress levels, and nutritional deficiencies in hens ​[1, 2]​.

How can the risk of feather pecking be managed in cage-free housing systems?

Managing the risk and spread of severe feather pecking is critical for ensuring good hen welfare. The risk and negative welfare impacts associated with feather pecking outbreaks can be effectively mitigated through alternative management strategies and, preferably as a last resort, the practice of beak trimming. The practice of beak trimming involves removing the tip of a hen’s beak to blunt or round its end using either an infrared or hot blade method ​[3]​. To read about what beak trimming is and why it is carried out, click here.

Although it is important to manage and prevent severe feather pecking outbreaks, the reliance on beak trimming as a routine mitigation measure is a concern because of its negative welfare impact on hens. There are a number of alternative management strategies to beak trimming which have been demonstrated to be effective at preventing and mitigating the risk of feather pecking. These strategies include:

  • Breeding programs focused on genetically selecting for hens which are less likely to become victims of feather pecking and for hens which are less likely to perform feather pecking behaviours towards other birds ​[4]​.
  • Minimising the overall stress and fear that may be experienced by hens during their lifespan.
  • Regularly monitoring for feather condition and early detection to ensure early intervention when feather pecking behaviours are identified ​[1]​.
  • Avoiding high and varied light intensity during pullet rearing and providing pullets with litter and environmental enrichment (e.g., pecking strings) from an early age (within the first 4 weeks of life) ​[5]​.
  • Appropriate diet formulation and form with an automated feeding system that runs several times a day to prevent hens from becoming frustrated which can increase the risk of aggressive behaviours, feather pecking, and varying nutrient intake in a flock ​[6]​.
  • Providing a good quality litter substrate in appropriate quantities as well as enrichment objects, such as pecking blocks/stones and beak-abrasive devices ​[7]​.
  • Lower indoor stocking densities to provide hens with more space to move around and escape potentially aggressive behaviours from other hens ​[8]​.


​​[1] Cronin GM, Glatz PC, Cronin GM, Glatz PC (2020) Causes of feather pecking and subsequent welfare issues for the laying hen: a review. Anim Prod Sci 61:990–1005

​[2] Saxmose Nielsen S, Alvarez J, Joseph Bicout D, et al (2023) Welfare of laying hens on farm. EFSA Journal 21:e07789

​[3] Glatz PC, Underwood G, Glatz PC, Underwood G (2020) Current methods and techniques of beak trimming laying hens, welfare issues and alternative approaches. Anim Prod Sci 61:968–989

​[4] Ellen ED, Bijma P (2019) Can breeders solve mortality due to feather pecking in laying hens? Poult Sci 98:3431–3442

​[5] Jongman EC, Jongman EC (2021) Rearing conditions of laying hens and welfare during the laying phase. Anim Prod Sci 61:876–882

​[6] Bryden WL, Li X, Ruhnke I, Zhang D, Shini S, Bryden WL, Li X, Ruhnke I, Zhang D, Shini S (2021) Nutrition, feeding and laying hen welfare. Anim Prod Sci 61:893–914

​[7] van Staaveren N, Ellis J, Baes CF, Harlander-Matauschek A (2021) A meta-analysis on the effect of environmental enrichment on feather pecking and feather damage in laying hens. Poult Sci 100:397–411

​[8] Jung L, Knierim U (2019) Differences between feather pecking and non-feather pecking laying hen flocks regarding their compliance with recommendations for the prevention of feather pecking – A matched concurrent case-control design. Appl Anim Behav Sci 219:104839

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Updated on October 30, 2023
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