Shy hens are overcoming their fear of open spaces - thanks to shade shelters, sand pits and hay bales.
Recent research found using a range of artificial enrichment structures encouraged Hy-Line brown layer hens, commonly used in commercial egg production to leave the shed for the free-range paddock.
The structures fostered natural behaviours such as the hens' prey instinct to sheltering and perching and helped to meet the birds' instinctive foraging needs. This resulted in less pecking damage and a significant improvement in the feather condition and plumage of the hens that were in the paddock.
A range of artificial structures including bark pits, tractor tyres, orange traffic cones and orange flags were also used as part of the 12 month project led by the South Australian Research and Development Institute (SARDI), a division of Primary Industries and Regions SA, and funded by the Poultry Cooperative Research Centre.
SARDI is working closely with Australia Egg Corporation to develop best practice advice for poultry farmers.
Quotes attributable to SARDI Research Chief Livestock and Farming Systems, Professor Alan Tilbrook
This project aimed to find practical solutions for farmers to provide a more enriched environment for their chickens, particularly those who have an open range paddock.
Animal welfare science helps support the community and consumers' increasing demands for improved standards of animal welfare.
This initial research was able to demonstrate that installing inexpensive artificial enrichment structures did have varying levels of success with improving the wellbeing and happiness of the hens, particularly with improved feather condition and plumage of the hens.
Industry benefits because the welfare of their hens has improved, their birds have less feather damage, and this addresses consumer expectations for continuous improvement in animal welfare.
The research also helps support the industry's strategic plan and desire to ensure good hen welfare and achieve best practice management.
Hy-Line brown layer hens naturally favour shade and cover rather than open spaces because of the threat of predators.
SARDI researchers monitored the behaviour of four flocks at three different farms over a six month period. They found that other factors such as inclement weather, low flying light aircraft and kangaroos contributed to the hens remaining in the shed.
The artificial structures did entice the hens to leave the shed, particularly shade shelters, hay bales and sand pits.