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What are the animal welfare issues with duck farming?

Ducks may be farmed in Australia for their meat, eggs or feathers. Domestic ducks used in duck farming all originate from the wild mallard duck (Anas platyrhynchos). The main breeds used are Pekin and Muscovy ducks. Ducks farmed for meat will typically be slaughtered between 6-7 weeks of age.

The intensive farming of ducks at high stocking densities and in poor housing conditions without suitable water access, has led to significant welfare issues. In addition to this, ducks are at risk of having their welfare compromised during painful husbandry procedures, handling, transportation and at slaughter.

Housing conditions and stocking density inside the shed

Ducks are usually housed indoors on the floor in sheds where they may be provided litter as bedding. Where ducks are raised in barren environments on slatted floors, they can become bored and frustrated, resulting in them engaging in abnormal behaviours such as feather pecking [1, 2]. Maintaining ducks on slatted floors can also lead to leg problems due to difficulty balancing on slats and injuries from slipping and falling. Providing ducks with appropriate litter material, such as straw, is important so that ducks can perform highly motivated natural foraging behaviours.

Housing ducks at high stocking densities can have negative impacts on performance (feed intake and growth rate), foot and leg health, and increase stress leading to abnormal behaviours such as feather pecking. Higher stocking densities can also make ventilation and litter management more challenging which can increase the risk of disease, thermal stress and foot and leg problems [3].

Water access

Ducks are waterfowl meaning under natural conditions they are aquatic and spend a large part of their life in the water. Access to water is essential for ducks to perform a variety of highly motivated water-related bathing behaviours such as sieving, dabbling, preening and head dipping. These bathing behaviours are important for ducks to have good feather condition, keep their nostrils and eyes clean, and for thermoregulation (maintaining normal body temperature) [1].

For ducks to perform these bathing behaviours they require water that allows for full body immersion, so that they may dip their heads and toss water over their bodies [4]. In many housing systems, ducks are not provided with access to water (other than drinking water) leading to negative health and welfare consequences. To read more about why access to water is important for ducks, click here.

Foot and leg health

Ducks being aquatic means their legs have adapted for both walking and swimming activities. Ducks are at risk of experiencing foot and leg problems when housed in poor conditions such as inappropriate flooring, poor ventilation and temperature control (i.e. high ammonia levels and high humidity), and poor litter management. Much of the research relating to foot and leg health of poultry, such as meat chickens or layer hens, is unfortunately not relevant due to ducks’ anatomical differences from being aquatic. More research is therefore needed to fully understand all the factors which can impact foot and leg health in farmed ducks.

Painful husbandry procedures

Ducks may be subjected to painful husbandry procedures such as bill trimming. Bill trimming involves removing a portion of the bill, like beak trimming in other poultry species, and is often used to prevent ducks from feather pecking. Bill trimming methods include cutting with scissors or a hot blade, tip-searing with a cautery blade, or infrared trimming. In Australia, most bill trimming is done using either a hot blade or infrared trimming method on day old ducklings at the hatchery. Regardless of the method, bill trimming causes short-term pain for ducks and in some methods particularly when performed on older ducks (such as scissors, hot blade and cautery blade) can also cause long-term pain and restrict ducks’ ability to display normal behaviours [1].

Stunning methods

When ‘meat’ ducks reach slaughter weight, they are transported to the abattoir for slaughter and processing. Upon arrival at the abattoir, ducks are removed from their transport crates/modules and shackled, upside down, by their legs on a conveyor system. In Australia, ducks are stunned (rendered unconscious) using an electrical waterbath system and then have their neck cut to ensure death from bleeding out.

Before slaughter, ducks may experience unnecessary suffering and pain due to the abnormal position of being shackled upside down causing fear and stress, as well as the compression of their legs by the shackles which is painful. In addition to this, how effectively a duck is stunned depends on the correct electrical parameters (voltage, current, frequency, and time) being applied. If done incorrectly, it can lead to ineffective stunning or even electro-immobilisation meaning ducks are conscious (alive and able to feel pain) during bleed out [5].

An alternative stunning method to electrical waterbath stunning systems is controlled atmosphere stunning. This involves exposing birds to carbon dioxide or inert gas combination (such as argon or nitrogen) prior to shackling. Once unconscious, birds are then shackled and have their neck cut to allow bleeding out. Carbon dioxide gas stunning systems are widely used in Australia for meat chickens, but not currently for ducks. Special care must be taken when using controlled atmosphere stunning in ducks due to their breath-holding abilities (because they are waterfowl) in comparison to other poultry species.

What is the RSPCA’s view?

RSPCA Australia believes that, in all farming systems, animals must be provided with freedom of movement and the ability to satisfy their behavioural, social, and physiological preferences and needs. This means all duck farming systems should provide ducks with sufficient space, clean and dry litter for comfortable resting and foraging, adequate lighting, good ventilation, and, if providing outdoor access, adequate shade and shelter to encourage outdoor range use.

Ducks must also be provided with water sources that allow for full body immersion to allow the opportunity for natural bathing behaviours. These water sources must be maintained in such a way that they meet the needs of the ducks, while minimising the risk of disease through best practice biosecurity measures.

References

[1] Nicol C, Bouwsema J, Caplen G et al (2017) Farmed bird welfare science review.

[2] Rodenbury TB, Bracke MBM, Berk J et al (2005) Welfare of ducks in European duck husbandry systems. 61(4):633-646.

[3] Yang C, Yu C, Zhang Z et al (2020) Research progress on effects of stocking density on performance, health and welfare of ducks. Agricultural Biotechnology 9(4):11-114, 119.

[4] Waitt C, Jones T, Dawkins MS (2009) Behaviour, synchrony and welfare of Pekin ducks in relation to water use. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 121(3/4).

[5] Hindle VA, Lambooij E, Reimert HGM (2010) Animal welfare concerns during the use of the water bath for stunning broilers, hens, and ducks. Poultry Science 89:401-412.

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Updated on July 29, 2021
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https://kb.rspca.org.au/knowledge-base/what-are-the-animal-welfare-issues-with-duck-farming/

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