All animals need to have enough space to carry out their normal behaviours, and to be physically healthy. When it comes to meat chickens, it’s important that birds have enough room to exercise, explore, peck, dust bathe, forage, and rest.
Generally, with all else being equal, the higher the stocking densities in commercial meat chicken housing, the greater potential for welfare compromise. High stocking densities can have negative impacts on many aspects of meat chicken welfare including walking ability, lesions due to litter contact, scratches, increased disturbances, greater difficulty managing litter quality, and heat stress. Low stocking densities are associated with increased activity and reduced lameness, footpad dermatitis, skin scratches, fearfulness, heat stress and contact dermatitis.
When birds are placed in the shed at one day old they have lots of space. However, as they grow over the course of 4-5 weeks, the space relative to their body size gets smaller. Therefore, a common practice in Australia is for producers remove a portion of the birds from a shed on multiple occasions, called ‘thinning’. Thinning can mean that birds are given less space, allows the maximum stocking density to be reached on more than one occasion, disrupts the birds, risks diseases being introduced to the shed, and is stressful for the birds that remain in the shed.
What can be done to improve welfare?
Greater space per bird and a phase out of thinning can provide numerous animal welfare benefits for meat chickens. This will however increase the price of chicken meat for consumers. For lower stocking densities and no thinning to be commercially viable, consumers need to demonstrate a demand for higher welfare by asking retailers for these changes and being prepared to pay more for chicken than they do today.