Preventing your hens feather pecking
Jess Stokes, Animal Welfare Advisor, explains what you need to consider to prevent feather pecking in your flock.
Feather pecking can be caused by many factors. The susceptibility of birds will depend on a range of variables within their environment. In terms of reducing the likelihood of feather pecking in your flock, the key areas to focus on are:
- maintaining dry friable litter for all hens to dustbathe and forage in
- maximising ranging behaviour
- preventing sudden stressors (such as disease outbreaks)
- ensuring optimal nutrition
- choosing calm, robust breeds that range well (some breeds may be more prone to injurious pecking)
Additionally, providing in house enrichment is important if birds are not ranging (e.g. during times of poor weather).
All these factors need to be considered to prevent a problem establishing during the rearing phase. If you don’t rear your own pullets, it is important to have a good working relationship with your pullet rearer.
If possible, try to visit your hens at the rearer’s facility so you can familiarise yourself with their first environment and can match these arrangements as much as possible, in order to minimise change for the birds. Ensure pullets are uniform in weight and in optimum health before arrival on your holding.
Maintaining dry friable litter throughout lay is possibly the single most important thing you can do to prevent a feather pecking outbreak. This should be provided in the form of straw (preferably chopped) or untreated wood shavings from untreated timber. In addition to this, it’s important to review the stocking densities of the housing, and the timings of when the birds are released from their houses.
Alterations to the feeding regime and accommodation to sudden changes in the weather or housing environment can also be a trigger. Ensure diets provide optimal nutrition with required balanced levels of essential amino acids and sodium levels. When you have to make a change to the diet always make the change gradual by mixing feed correctly.
Hens that range properly are far less likely to feather peck, but hens will not range unless they feel confident to do so. Well-placed overhead cover will help provide security from aerial predation. Providing trees or rotating your hens around orchards is conducive for effective ranging. Management makes all the difference to ensure confident and extensive use of the range. Some producers use cover crops which create additional foraging opportunities and protein. Artificial shelters can also be placed in strategic locations, such as just outside the house or in a clearing further afield. These shelters have the added benefit of dustbathing opportunities outside.