Breeder birds in the meat chicken industry lay the eggs that will hatch into chickens grown for meat. There are currently two main commercial meat chicken breeds in Australia, both of which have been selectively bred to grow to large sizes quickly. This genetic selection has led to animal welfare issues in breeder birds.
Breeder birds gain weight rapidly, to the point of obesity, and therefore develop an increased prevalence of health problems, reproductive problems and a decrease in sexual activity.
To address these issues, access to food is restricted for breeder birds. This creates animal welfare concerns as birds experience chronic hunger and stress, and may display abnormal repetitive behaviours, aggression and injurious pecking which can cause harm to their fellow birds.
Breeder birds will often have their beaks trimmed at an early age to reduce the risk of injurious pecking. Male breeder birds may also be subjected to toe clipping and spur removal.
Breeder birds may not be provided with an environment in the shed that allows them to perform natural behaviours like nesting, perching and foraging. Further, they may also develop contact dermatitis, a skin condition that is caused by prolonged contact with irritating materials such as damp litter.
What do breeder birds need to improve their welfare?
The welfare of breeder birds can be improved by providing:
- Clean dry litter – to encourage dustbathing and foraging and prevent skin problems
- Adequate food – by providing fibre-rich diets to reduce hunger
- Opportunities for birds to perch, nest and forage – to allow them to carry out their naturally motivated behaviours
- Active monitoring for signs of feather pecking or aggression – to enable early intervention when negative behaviours first appear, and appropriate management of the problem
In order to stop restricting feed given to breeder birds, their genetics need to change. Different breeds need to be used. Further research and investment is needed into genetic selection for birds which do not require feed restriction. This may be achieved through selection for particular traits at different life stages, or by the use of slower-growing breeds.