Improving productivity and bird welfare in the egg laying industry

Research conducted in the College of Medical, Veterinary & Life Sciences has driven substantial improvements in the egg-laying industry, in productivity and in bird welfare. 

Cracked and damaged eggs account for 8–10% of total global egg production, resulting in substantial economic loss. Dr Maureen Bain validated an innovative new tool that uses acoustics to assess eggshell quality. Working with industry partners, and in collaboration with the Roslin Institute, Dr Bain showed that the acoustic test can predict the probability of egg cracking during routine handling, and that this trait could be passed on from parent hens to offspring. The acoustic test can therefore be used to select birds with improved eggshell quality for breeding.

This validation led directly to the tool being adopted by two of the largest international poultry-breeding companies. Given the significant share of the UK egg-laying market these companies occupy, the increased number of undamaged saleable eggs produced by these hens saves approximately £10 million annually to UK egg producers alone.

Research informing policy
University research has also influenced UK government policy on the welfare management of laying hens. Injurious bird-to-bird pecking can occur in a significant proportion of UK flocks. Damaging pecking presents a major welfare and economic problem. Commercial egg producers currently use beak trimming to minimise the damage caused by such outbreaks. In a project jointly funded by the Department for Environmental, Food & Rural Affairs and the British Egg Industry Council, Dr Dorothy McKeegan investigated the long-term welfare implications of using a new infrared technique for beak trimming. The research showed that this approach does not result in chronic pain or other adverse consequences for sensory function.

These findings influenced the UK policy debate and contributed to a decision to defer a ban on beak trimming. The ban would have exposed 35 million laying hens to potential pecking injury or death, as well as costing the industry an estimated £4.82–£12.3 million annually. Research is ongoing at a number of UK institutions to determine optimal management strategies to mitigate the risk of pecking, and thus reduce the need for beak trimming ahead of review of beak trimming policy in 2015.

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