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Major study examining Dutch broiler welfare published

broiler chickens

A STUDY examining thousands of commercial broiler flocks in three tiers of Dutch broiler production has suggested that the more extensive systems have higher welfare outcomes.

But the report highlights that bird management has an important role to play in welfare scores given the performance of some conventional, as well as more extensive, bird systems.

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Wageningen University researchers examined a minimum of 1,889 broiler flocks in the Netherlands per production system over a two-year period. The three production systems were:

Conventional (C)

  • Standard broilers stocked at up to 42kg/sq m
  • Indoor production, with most not having natural light provision
  • Usually no environmental enrichment

Dutch Retail Boiler (DRB)

  • Indoor production using a slower-growing strain of bird (max 50g/day)
  • Max stocking density of 38kg/ sq m
  • Environmental enrichments
  • No natural light requirement

Better Life System (BLS)

  • Indoor production with the provision of an outdoor veranda
  • Slower-growing strain (45g/day max) stocked at 25kg / sq m max
  • Natural light and environmental enrichment

Researchers examined animal-based measures, such as mortality, footpad dermatitis or breast irritation, and resource- or management-based outcomes, such as the provision of environmental enrichments or natural light.

The study’s results, which is one of the largest of its kind, found that the two production systems with higher welfare requirements (DRB + BLS) led to an average improved level of welfare.

Taking both the resource and animal-based welfare measures together saw the BLS having the highest overall welfare score.

There was also the smallest variation in welfare scores between flocks in the BLS system, suggesting more consistent higher welfare for birds reared to that standard.

‘Overlap’  

But the study noted that there was a “large overlap” in total welfare scores between the three systems.

“The best performing conventional flock had a better welfare score than the worst performing flock in the Better Life one star system,” researchers said.

“When only the five animal-based measures were included, the overlap in welfare scores between the systems even increased.

“The highest possible scores were then reached in flocks of each system.

‘Management’

“This suggests an important role for management and housing conditions in addition to the requirements for each production system.

“When the welfare scores per farm (thus not per flock) was determined, it was shown that for both the conventional and the Chicken of Tomorrow system farms could be identified that were consistently better or worse than the median score, while for Better Life one star farms predominantly scored around the median.”

The full study, Differences and variation in welfare performance of broiler flocks in three production systems, was published in the journal Poultry Science.