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It’s the latest hot potato bouncing around the egg industry, so here we explore why
birds currently have their beaks trimmed in order that you can make up your own minds
on this emotive issue.
Within a flock of up to 90 birds, each hen will know its position within the pecking
order. This makes for a happy flock with just an occasional skirmish to retain and/or
assert authority. However, within the commercial world, birds need to be kept in far
greater numbers to keep the cost of eggs realistic, anything up to 16,000 in a flock, and it
is in these large flocks that behaviours change and can become damaging.
Birds have their beaks trimmed for one reason and that is to prevent them from causing
harm to one another; if beaks are left untrimmed there is an increased danger that
feather pecking will become habitual within a large flock, which in turn can quickly lead to
what is known as ‘injurious pecking’, and in a worst case scenario, multiple deaths can be
caused through injury.
Feather pecking can start for a variety of reasons - it can be a feed deficiency, boredom, or
it can be no particular reason at all. It takes one hen to peck one feather which draws
blood, and that can attract the attention of other hens; all hens are drawn to red. Once a
pattern of behaviour is established within a flock, it is very difficult to contain.
Infra-red beak treatment is the latest evolution in the practice of removing the sharp tip
from the beak of laying hens. Day old chicks are treated with an infra-red beam as part of
a quick process, over in moments, after which the chicks revert to their natural behaviour.
The tip of the beak then falls off around 10 days later, thereby thwarting the bird's ability
to deliver harmful pecks at other birds. However, officially the practice is classed as
mutilation so by its nature, beak tipping is an emotive topic.
So what would happen if producers just stopped this practice? Well, farmers are currently
carrying out research to find out the definitive answer. I spoke to one farmer who had
two flocks running concurrently of 4,500
each, one beak trimmed, the other
entire’.
When I spoke to the farmer, the birds
were 34 weeks into their laying cycle
and there was little difference to show
in the two flocks. The ‘entire’ birds were
given more activity such as pecker
blocks, a mini ‘hay net’, straw bales, egg
trays hung up, anything to peck. This
enrichment was introduced to the hens
as young pullets so they grew up with
the idea of having ‘games’ to play with.