Beak trimming is the partial removal of the tip of the beak, and results in a beak that is blunt or rounded at the end. Beak trimming is sometimes referred to as “debeaking”; however, at no time is the entire beak removed. Beak trimming is one of the most common methods utilised by the poultry industry (mainly the egg and turkey industries) to control the impacts of severe feather pecking. Severe feather pecking is a welfare problem where birds vigorously peck at and pull out the feathers of other birds.
Beak trimming can cause both acute and chronic pain, and can lead to difficulty feeding. While relatively effective in controlling severe feather pecking, beak trimming is an invasive procedure which affects birds’ sensory capabilities and normal behaviour, and is prohibited in several countries. There is a need to move away from beak trimming and instead focus on good management strategies, environmental complexity and enrichment, the selection of appropriate genetics, small group sizes, and more research to elucidate the causes of severe feather pecking.
In Australia, beak trimming is commonly performed when chicks are one day of age. For layer hens, a follow-up beak trim may also occur later in life, between 8 and 12 weeks of age. Birds are often re-trimmed in order to prevent re-growth of the beak tip and subsequent damage due to severe feather pecking. The most common methods of beak trimming are through the use of infrared technology, and hot blades. Infrared beak trimming is performed with specialised equipment at the hatchery on day-old chicks using a high intensity energy source which penetrates the outer layer of the beak. The beak tissue then begins to soften and degrade away over the next couple of weeks. Another method of beak trimming requires the use of a hot blade. The hot blade machine uses a heated blade of approximately 650-750°C to cut and cauterise the beak tip and can be performed at a variety of ages on farm.
Beak trimming can result in reduced sensitivity and impaired function of the beak which can affect the bird’s overall pecking behaviour. Beak trimming can cause pain and stress, the extent of which will depend on a number of factors such as the method used, age of the bird, amount of beak removed, calibration and appropriate functioning of the equipment, and training of personnel involved in carrying out the procedure.
The reliance on beak trimming as a routine method of managing feather pecking and cannibalism is a concern. There is a need to employ alternative management strategies to reduce the risk of injurious pecking. Management and stockpersonship are crucial in controlling feather pecking. There is a need for uptake of strategies to manage severe feather pecking without the need for beak trimming. These include:
- the provision of appropriate environmental enrichment
- good litter management
- appropriate stocking densities
- appropriate diet formulation and form
- reducing stress and fearfulness
- selecting strains of birds with lower propensities to perform severe feather pecking
- matching the rearing and laying environments as closely as possible
- providing environmental complexity and the ability for birds to escape other birds.
Minimising the impact of severe feather pecking can be achieved through proactive monitoring, regular feather scoring, and early interventions by implementing management strategies including all of the above factors as soon as any signs of feather pecking are observed.