Beak trimming is the practice of removing the tip of a bird’s beak to blunt or round its end. Beak trimming is commonly performed in the egg and turkey industries in Australia to mitigate the negative animal welfare and production impacts of severe feather pecking outbreak within a flock.
Severe feather pecking is where birds vigorously peck at and pull out the feathers of other birds, which can lead to injuries, cannibalism, and death. The cause of severe feather pecking outbreaks is multifactorial and complex and can occur in all types of commercial poultry housing systems [1, 2]. Factors which have been associated with an increased risk of outbreaks occurring include misdirected foraging behaviours, increased stress levels, and nutritional deficiencies in birds [1, 3].
An outbreak of severe feather pecking can occur in both large commercial flocks and small backyard flocks and can be caused by several different factors. When an outbreak occurs, particularly in a large commercial flock, it can be very difficult to control and treat.
What are the methods of beak trimming?
The main methods of beak trimming are infrared and hot blade beak trimming. Although beak trimming is sometimes referred to as “debeaking”, at no time is the entire beak removed. In Australia, the majority of layer hens and turkeys are beak trimmed using the infrared method. Infrared beak trimming is performed with specialised equipment at the hatchery on day-old chicks using a high intensity infrared energy source that treats the upper and lower tip of the beak (i.e., about 1/3 of the beak) . The infrared energy source penetrates the outer layer and underlying tissue of the beak which, after being treated, begins to soften and then erodes away as chicks use their beaks over the next couple of weeks .
Hot blade beak trimming uses a heated blade with temperatures ranging from 595-750°C to cut through and cauterise (stop bleeding) the upper and lower beak tips . The method is usually performed when birds are 7-10 days of age. Layer hens may also have their beaks re-trimmed using the hot blade method when they are between 8-12 weeks of age if the tips of their beaks regrow after the initial beak trimming . Re-trimming of the beak is usually only performed on layer hens because they are kept until they are around 72 weeks of age, whereas turkeys are slaughtered for meat at around 8-12 weeks of age. Layer hens therefore have an increased risk of a severe feather pecking outbreak occurring and being an ongoing issue within a flock due to their longer productive lifespan.
What are the animal welfare issues associated with beak trimming?
Beak trimming is an invasive procedure that is performed without pain relief and can cause stress, as well as acute and chronic pain in birds . Beak trimming can damage the sensory receptors in the bird’s beak leading to a loss of beak sensation and function, which can affect the bird’s ability to feed and perform other normal behaviours such as foraging and ground pecking. Birds can also develop neuromas after beak trimming, which is where the nerve fibres in the beak begin to regrow and result in chronic pain .
The risk of birds experiencing negative welfare outcomes as a result of beak trimming depends on several factors including the method used, age of the bird, amount of beak removed, calibration and type of equipment used, and the training and competency of the personnel performing the procedure. The infrared beak trimming method is preferred over the hot blade method because it has been demonstrated to cause less pain and have a decreased risk of neuromas forming .
What are the alternatives to beak trimming?
Beak trimming is still considered one of the most effective ways of mitigating the risk of negative welfare impact associated with severe feather pecking outbreaks within a flock.
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 birds. There is a need for the layer hen and turkey industries to move away from routine beak trimming. Instead, industries should be focused on using alternative management strategies, which have been demonstrated to effectively decrease the risk of severe feather pecking without the need for beak trimming. Some of these strategies are:
- selecting genetic strains of birds less likely to perform feather pecking
- matching the rearing and laying environments as closely as possible for layer hens
- proactive monitoring and regular feather scoring of birds
- early detection and intervention of potential severe feather pecking outbreaks
- appropriate stocking densities and flock sizes
- provision of good quality litter substrate and foraging material
- adequate environmental enrichment provision, such as beak-abrasive devices and pecking stones/blocks
- appropriate lighting intensity and program
- appropriate diet formulation and form.
Most of these management strategies are more effective when implemented when birds are young (i.e., during pullet rearing) because this is when birds are first likely to develop problematic pecking behaviours [1, 3].
What is the RSPCA’s view on beak trimming?
Beak trimming remains one of the most effective methods to mitigate the negative animal welfare impact caused by severe feather pecking in layer hen and turkey flocks. However, there are also animal welfare issues associated with beak trimming. The RSPCA urges producers to phase out the practice of beak trimming and, instead, implement effective alternative management strategies to mitigate the risks of severe feather pecking in flocks.
The RSPCA Approved Standards for layer hens and turkeys only allow beak trimming to occur at the hatchery by a competent operator using the infrared method. Only the tip of the beak may be removed.
 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
 Schwarzer A, Plattner C, Bergmann S, Rauch E, Erhard M, Reese S, Louton H (2021) Feather Pecking in Non-Beak-Trimmed and Beak-Trimmed Laying Hens on Commercial Farms with Aviaries. Animals 2021, Vol 11, Page 3085 11:3085
 Saxmose Nielsen S, Alvarez J, Joseph Bicout D, et al (2023) Welfare of laying hens on farm. EFSA Journal 21:e07789
 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