Beak trimming - can we do without it?

Researchers at the University of Bristol are appealing for help from free range egg producers who are considering managing their flocks without beak trimming.

The scientists, led by professor of animal welfare Christine Nicol, have been commissioned by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) to gather evidence on whether laying birds can be kept in a reliably high standard of welfare without having their beaks trimmed.

The work is in preparation for a ban on the use of beak-trimming, which is now expected to come into force in 2016, and the University of Bristol needs egg producers to take part in a study and support programme that will take place over a period of three years.

"Ideally we would like people who could work with us for two full laying periods. That would be brilliant," said Christine. "It's not really a research project. What we are trying to do is provide a package of support to any farmers who are thinking about having a go. It's really an advice and support sort of role, and monitoring - we will be monitoring what happens and recording that, but it's really about using all the information we have gathered over the last few years working mostly with beak-trimmed flocks," said Christine.

The team at Bristol has done extensive research into feather pecking, so the university was a natural choice for this role when the Beak Trimming Action Group resumed its work last year following the Government's decision to delay the beak trimming ban due to come into force at the beginning of 2011. That ban was put off on the advice of the Farm Animal Welfare Committee (FAWC) because of its concerns about feather pecking and cannibalism. It said that the ban should be deferred until it could be demonstrated reliably under commercial conditions that non-beak-trimmed laying hens could be managed without a greater risk to their welfare than that caused by beak trimming itself.

Agriculture Minister Jim Paice said the position would be reviewed again in 2015 with the aim of the ban being introduced in 2016, and he stressed that the Government was determined to see the practice of beak trimming ended. On announcing the delay, he said, "We will be working with the industry and the Beak Trimming Action Group to achieve this, so I don’t want you to think 'well that’s five years away, we need not worry any more about it.' I think you should worry about it. I think the Beak Trimming Action Group really does need now to find a way forward."

Christine Nicol said that her team would be trying to bring together the results of the work it had done previously to provide egg producers with advice, practical support and a little bit of financial incentive, although not a huge amount. "Things like buying some of the enrichment we might suggest, that sort of level," said Christine. She said the project would also involve working together with partners ADAS to provide a detailed cost analysis so that farmers could see whether they were likely to lose or gain financially.

Christine said that her team had a list of about 40 different suggestions that could be adopted by egg producers to enable them to overcome the potential detrimental effects of not beak trimming. "But it depends on the farm. We won't suggest all 40. Some farms will be doing some of the things we suggest, anyway, on other farms some things may be more important than others, so we will come and look, ideally at the previous flock, and really take a look at the farm to see what's being done well and identify reasonable things that we think could make a difference. There is no point telling someone they need to put up a new house. We do know from previous research that the more of these 40 things that are put in place the less feather pecking we get."

Christine said that she would like volunteers to join the project before they had placed their order for new pullets because the choice of breed could have an effect on the eventual results. She said that the team was already working with pullet rearers because pecking behaviour could emerge during rearing. "If they arrive on farm already with a tendency to peck then it is going to be an uphill struggle."

With pullet rearers already on board, Christine is now directing her plea for help to egg producers. She said the University of Bristol had pioneered ways of working collaboratively with farmers to improve animal welfare and a tailored advice package designed to prevent and control bird-to-bird pecking problems had been tested on 53 farms. She said the advice had been found to be effective in improving farm profits at the same time as safeguarding bird welfare and feather cover on largely beak-trimmed flocks. She is now looking for volunteers to use the package in managing flocks that had not had their beaks trimmed.

She said new volunteers to the project would be supported through all stages of the process – from being presented with an economic analysis of the performance of their current (possibly beak-trimmed) flock to talking through the implications of sourcing intact-beak birds and the management changes that might be required. Once the decision to obtain non-trimmed birds had been taken, University of Bristol researchers would work with the pullet rearers to ensure that the point-of-lay birds arrived with a minimal tendency to start pecking. They would also advise on transfer and settling-in of the point-of-lay birds because getting the conditions exactly right at this time could dramatically reduce the chances of injurious pecking later. Even small details could make a difference, she said.

"Beak trimming may well be banned in less than four years’ time. If you are already managing feather pecking well in your beak-trimmed flocks, now might be a good time to go one step further and gain experience with a non-trimmed flock," said Christine. She said that, ideally, volunteers would be thinking of ordering pullets to arrive in early 2013, although egg producers looking to introduce pullets later in 2013 should not be deterred from contacting the Bristol team.

Anyone interested in volunteering or seeking more information about the study can email Christine Nicol at the School of Veterinary Science at the University of Bristol. Her email address is Alternatively you can telephone Jon Walton or Paula Baker on 0117 331 9144.

Study acceptability levels

The acceptability thresholds have been very widely discussed by all members of BTAG. The descriptors (good, acceptable, unacceptable) are for the purposes of this study only - individual farmers may have their own targets and our aim is to continue to lower mortality levels for all flocks. The only really good mortality level is 0%.


40 Weeks

Good < 2%

Acceptable = 5%

Unacceptable > 5% (unless the cause of most mortality can be shown to be clearly unrelated to injurious pecking)

End of Lay

Good < 5%

Acceptable = 9%

Unacceptable > 9% (unless the cause of most mortality can be shown to be clearly unrelated to injurious pecking)

BFREPA instigates call for compensation fund

The British Free Range Egg Producers' Association (BFREPA) believes it is important that the work by the University of Bristol is carried out, but says that egg producers must be compensated for any losses they suffer by taking part in the study. The association is even considering raising funds to run its own compensation scheme.

BFREPA vice chairman Roger Gent said that the issue of compensation for producers had been raised at the latest BFREPA council meeting. He said it was felt that the compensation needed to be made available in order to encourage egg producers to take part in the study. "There needs to be some support in case something monumental happens and a flock gets decimated. Defra says it has no money, so we are looking at the possibility of a small levy to cover compensation ourselves."

It is understood that the target of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) is to restrict the mortality rate to five per cent with birds that have not had their beaks trimmed. However, it is thought that plans for the beak trimming ban will only be put off if the mortality rate is above nine per cent.

Roger said he feared that trying to manage a flock without beak-trimming could have severe consequences for the profitability of egg producers. It was important that BFREPA members took part in the Bristol project to ensure that the true effects of not beak trimming laying birds were revealed.

Beak trimming - A personal veterinary view by Stephen Lister, Crowshall Veterinary Services

Beak trimming of laying hens is a very emotive issue and has been for many years. Free range producers acknowledge its role in reducing the likelihood of injurious pecking and feather loss, both of which can cause discomfort to birds and make them much more likely to suffer from subsequent health issues.

Others consider the procedure to be unacceptable due to the alteration of a very sensitive part of the birds anatomy (a so called mutilation).

Mutilations are generally banned by Government legislation, based on animal welfare considerations; with a derogation to allow certain procedures, of which beak trimming is an example, where expert advice considers they should be allowed.

The polarity in views on this subject has in part been caused by the historical extremes of what might be termed beak trimming. In the past, much harsher “debeaking” of point of lay pullets, where a third of the upper beak may have been removed, is much different from the current procedures of beak tipping or the use of far less traumatic procedures such as infrared beak treatment performed at day old in the hatchery.

The latter has been shown by research to avoid the production of neuromas (small bulges at the end of cut nerves) which were previously seen to develop following harsher beak trimming of point of lay birds and have been shown to be associated with chronic “ghost pain” in human amputees.

On balance, the view from the industry, veterinarians and some researchers is that the availability of a well controlled and less intrusive technique that can avoid the unwanted sequelae of cannibalism, injurious feather pecking, or even pecking that leads to feather loss and bald birds, is a justifiable procedure to maintain bird health and welfare. Poor feather cover is known to make free range birds much more susceptible to an assortment of disease conditions and ailments and as such is a good indicator of a flocks health and welfare.

Knowing that beak treatment, professionally applied, can alleviate many of these issues offers a “trade-off” to benefit overall laying hen welfare.

However, when the current Agriculture Minister, James Paice MP, made his written statement to the House in November 2010 lifting the ban on routine beak trimming of laying hens, he made it clear that this was seen by Government as very much an interim solution to the issue and that he would review all available evidence in 2015 with a view to banning beak trimming in 2016.

So, the writing is on the wall, and all producers should be aware of this interim position by Government! The issue will not go away!

The industry, its technical and veterinary advisers, and researchers are continuing to work with Government in seeking a best solution to this situation. Part of this activity was the reconvening of the Beak Trimming Action Group (BTAG).

The Group consists of representatives from industry, BFREPA, BEIC, NFU, ADAS, Farm Animal Welfare Committee, welfare groups CIWF and RSPCA, academics, veterinarians, Government and recently, retailers. The goal of BTAG and its steering group was originally set so that all interested parties would work together to develop and implement an action plan to inform consideration of the Governments desire to ban beak trimming in 2016, whilst ensuring that the welfare of laying hens is not compromised. At all stages of their deliberations BTAG members have stressed that their primary consideration is to ensure at all times that the welfare of laying hens is safeguarded.

This is a challenging task and is currently being underpinned by Defra funded research to further the excellent Tubney funded research undertaken by Bristol University looking at the factors that lead to injurious pecking and intervention packages designed to reduce such pecking. Further details of the most recent project can be found elsewhere in this issue of the Ranger, where candidate flocks avoiding beak trimming are being sought.

Whatever the outcome of any future bans on beak trimming of laying hens, producers would be best advised to take a very keen interest in this type of work.

The types of interventions being shown by these bits of research to have the real potential to reduce injurious pecking apply to ALL birds, whether they have intact beaks or not. As such, ALL producers have a vested interest and obligation to take notice of these developments to do all they can to reduce injurious pecking, feather loss and all that goes with it. It should then be a developing “win-win” situation with the likelihood of flocks to peck being reduced and the decision to avoid beak trimming being an easier choice to make. We may be some way off a satisfactory solution to this issue but now is the time to act to reduce the impact of injurious pecking in ALL flocks.

In this way, bird welfare will benefit and producers will benefit from managing healthier more contented flocks which should improve performance.

Beak Trimming - A point of view by Trevor Bray

I am encouraged! The University of Bristol, led by Professor Christine Nicol has been increasingly and constructively liaising with pullet rearers and free range producers.

The Beak Trimming Liaison Group and DEFRA have also been liaising with the researchers and thank goodness, there has been a positive outcome to the liaison. It is absolutely essential, in my view, that the aim of the Government to ban beak trimming, should not go ahead unless and until there is a greater understanding of the causes of the problem. It is good therefore that Bristol University aims to be involved in giving advice on managing flocks that have not been beak trimmed. Finding out more about the practicalities and potential dangers for non beak trimmed hens free range will also be a constructive move.

The snag that I have is that I was involved with Research and Development in poultry for 16 years and therefore instinctively look for statistically significant differences. On free range farms, any investigations into the effects of the hens not having been beak trimmed can never be better than a “look see” sort of trial. Now don’t get me wrong; I am not saying that the proposed investigations by Bristol University should not go ahead. I think that it is a brilliant thing and potentially a helpful one that there will be collaborative liaisons with producers. What I am saying however is that there are so many potential causes of feather pecking and cannibalism, that the proposed time frame is much too short.

It is unlikely that by 2016 that it will be safe to say to the Government – ‘Right we have cracked it, go ahead and we can safely say that feather pecking and cannibalism will now not occur on farms’! Indeed, I fear that it will never be possible to say that. Why? On a commercial farm producing free range eggs, there are so many factors that can lead to a feather pecking and /or cannibalism problem. In addition, the geneticists may inadvertently make a selection that in a few years time may make a well-behaved flock less so.

Thanks to the researchers, coupled with helpful breeders and an increased practical experience on rearing and laying farms, the aetiology of feather pecking and cannibalism is better understood than it used to be. The welfare of hens is linked with the genetic characteristics, the behaviour and the management of the flocks. What is required is a docile but active flock.

There is an incompatibility here, because a docile flock that may be less inclined to peck their neighbours may not necessarily want to lay all of their eggs in the nest boxes. The snag is that we keep hens in large colonies and that is a long way from what is natural for them.

Humans become “scratchy” and “edgy” when being made to queue at the airport or being squeezed into overcrowded trains. We become stressed. Is it realistic to expect hens not to show the same type of behaviour? No. We have to reach a compromise in the way that we keep hens and in their management.

The realities of producing eggs at an affordable price are somewhat contrary to what may be the optimal way of ensuring their welfare. That is why the proposed liaison with the Bristol University team is such a sensible idea.

Both the producers and the researchers are likely to gain knowledge that should be potentially helpful. But to outlaw vices permanently in hens to the point where it would be safe for them not have been beak trimmed, by 2016? Not a hope!

For goodness sake be realistic and don’t outlaw beak trimming by then. The realities of life on a free range site, often with unforeseen problems, must prevail over an idealistic Government diktat that has resulted from pressure on them by those who don’t understand the multiple causes that can increase the possibility of feather pecking and cannibalism.

So what are the most likely potential problems that could cause welfare insults to and by the hens? Yes, it is that dreaded word STRESS again! Many of the triggers are stress related, such as:

• Frights: I know a site where intruders broke into the house during the night-time and ‘spooked’ the hens. Not only were there losses from the hens piling on top of one another but it also affected their behaviour permanently. The shock turned a previously docile flock into a wary and flighty one. They started to feather peck and cannibalise and an unstoppable escalation in mortality occurred. You can’t legislate against many of the innumerable things that can frighten hens. Are they suggesting that there should be a law against a stray cat or wild birds gaining entrance into the hens’ house via the popholes?! Frights can definitely lead to aggressive behaviour in hens.

• Flightiness: It is good news that the pullet rearers are willing to co-operate with the Bristol University project. The treatment of pullets on the rearing farm can have a lifelong effect on the performance and behaviour of hens on the laying sites. There are flocks that during the rearing period have started to become ‘edgy’, sometimes accompanied by some feather pecking. They tend to continue with this vice on the laying farm.

On the laying farms, a flock can become flighty too and can be a real challenge for the manager and however delicate the management is, it may not be possible to rectify this unwanted behaviour.

• Liveweight: Quite rightly, there has been a realisation that pullets or hens that are under the breeders’ target liveweights can perform badly and are more prone to vices. For example, on a laying farm, flocks that are underweight whilst coming into lay are often the ones that feather peck. They are unable to ingest their full requirement of nutrients and like cows (who ‘milk off their backs’), they loose liveweight, become stressed and their behaviour is adversely affected. Sometimes during the laying period something happens that leads to a liveweight loss. This can be associated with an increased tendency to feather peck.

• Light Intensity: There is nothing that can be done about the fact that when an egg is laid there is a momentary eversion of the oviduct. Hens have good sight and are attracted by red. They can take an abstracted peck at another hen’s everted cloaca, when the egg is just about to pop out. This need not be an aggressive act but once hens have tasted the blood, it can become a nightmare for the producer as the number of peck outs increases day by day. It is important therefore that eggs are laid in nests where there is a subdued light intensity. Some hens don’t want to lay in the nest boxes however and we want a docile flock. Oh, an example of a circular argument. I have already mentioned that one!

• Feed Quality: We have learnt a lot about how to feed hens. Feed compounders now offer feeds that have a wide range of nutrient densities. The producer has to make decisions about which feed to use and when to change from one feed to another. The decisions will often be right for the majority of hens but within a population there is variability. Will he have got it right for all of the hens? Probably not. Maybe most of you don’t remember the war time song “Bless `em All, the long and the short and the tall”. Yes, we humans are a variable species! When deciding on the nutrition for the hens, we give them what is likely to be the best choice for the majority of the hens. But we have weighed them, I hear you say and were pleased that 80% of the hens were within ± 10% of the mean liveweight.

So what about the other 20%? Maybe it could be the thin or the over-productive within a flock that may be nutritionally challenged. They could be the ones that start to peck and possibly then cannibalise?

I have often said that it amazes me, with something as sophisticated as formulating and making layers feed, how often there are no problems. On rare occasions however mistakes are made. For example, it is extremely well known that a feed that is low in its sodium content causes a big problem for the hens. Each cell within the hens’ body has to have the correct balance of minerals for it to function properly. When the cells become depleted in sodium (via too little salt and sodium bicarbonate in the feed) the hens’ metabolism is jeopardized. Their feed intake drops and they invariably start to peck each other. Or maybe the quality of the protein is not as good as the compounder thought, i.e. its amino acid content may be imbalanced and lacking in an essential amino acid. Hens seem to know that feathers are high in protein (albeit somewhat indigestible), so they may start to feather peck to try to increase their protein intake. Mistakes can unfortunately happen. Human error can lead to cannibalised hens.

• Overstocking: The overall stocking density within a house is regulated but do the hens take note of that and spread themselves evenly within the area? No, they tend to congregate at the end of the house from which their attendant is coming to see them. We have all had the experience of a hoard of loudly singing hens coming to greet us when we come into their house. I love it! Is that actually stressful for them when they find that it is then difficult to go and get a drink and some food?

• Poor Litter Quality: It is very difficult indeed in a cold and wet spell in the winter to keep the litter friable, especially near the popholes. Hens love to dust bathe but sometimes this natural instinct is not possible for them. Likewise, in wet weather it is virtually impossible for the range area to be ideal for the hens. So there will almost inevitably be times when, despite our best endeavours, the hens will be deprived of a factor that is known to improve their welfare.

• Extremes of Temperature: Free range hens have to have access to the range area. Range shelters and trees are great, especially in hot weather. They provide shade and the seclusion from predators that the hens need. What about the interior of the house in hot weather? It will probably be hotter than the temperature outside (each hen gives off about 7 or 8 Watts of heat). A panting hen is a stressed one. Stress can lead to vices. Likewise the temperature may be cold and windy and the regulations say that popholes must be open. Ideally there should be flexibility, in the best interests of the hens, at such a time. Maybe keeping hens in a controlled environment house had some advantages!? The hens wondering whether to go out and face that chilling east wind might think so.

• Use of the Range Area: It is not always clear why, despite the best efforts of the producer, some flocks prefer to remain in the house rather than to venture out into the big wide world. It is not only humans who have a free will, hens do too when in the free range system. We can make a choice of staying at home, slumped in our favourite chair and watching the TV, knowing that the fridge is at hand with that cool beer in it and in the adjacent cupboard there are those tasty chocolate biscuits! Hens are surely quite capable of making similar decisions i.e. staying safely near feed and water and that comfy perch where it can have a snooze. Ok, enhancements out on the range can help but can Bristol University overcome the down side of the free choice that we have given the hens?

To summarise, if you think that stress can cause vices in hens (I do) and that they must be overcome, all of the variable potential stressors should be avoided. Oh, what an ideal world that would be! So lets collaborate with the Bristol University project and learn more about such an important topic. Because if some stressors still exist, their effects will probably be cumulative and the point is reached where for the welfare of the hens, lasting and often unstoppable problems can occur. But avoid all stress to hens? That will be the day!

The Project / Taking Part

As I have intimated, I think that both producers and Bristol University will learn a lot from the proposed investigation / liaison process. It will give the researchers a chance to pass on and to test the experiences that they have already gained. Therefore in theory, I would encourage producers to co-operate.

Oh, why say ‘in theory’? The reason is, as already discussed in this article, that it is not always possible to avoid potential triggers that can set off a flock into an undesirable behavioural pattern. Therefore there could be a risk, that despite all of the good intentions and advice, some flocks may start to peck. If the flock behaves impeccably or just ends up with just a few feathers missing, the learning process and liaison with Bristol will have been valuable. However, if they do actually loose a lot of feathers, more expensive feed will have been eaten.

If they both feather peck and then start to cannibalise, there could be a financial loss greater than producers are already making in these difficult times. Therefore there will have to be, in my view, a system of compensating the collaborating producer if things go less than well. I realise that DEFRA will not find it easy to fund any potential losses. If that is so, they shouldn’t have got themselves into the position where they are trying to force an unsafe and unnecessary piece of legislation onto hard pressed free range egg producers.