WITH avian influenza seemingly endemic in wild birds across Europe and the UK, the government has ordered free-range poultry farmers to keep birds housed from 14 December.
For commercial free-range flocks, there can be a range of pitfalls to consider. Bird management will play a critical role in keeping hens happy and productive over the period that they are housed.
And the days before the housing order comes into force will be crucial to minimise any issues once birds can no longer go outside.
What is a housing order?
Defra does not take decisions like this lightly. A housing order was last made in the winter of 2016/2017, another challenging year for the poultry sector.
This year there have been six cases of avian influenza in the UK as well as many findings in wild birds.
The idea behind housing poultry is that flocks are less likely to come into contact with wild birds, therefore reducing the risk of avian influenza transmission.
How does it affect free-range eggs?
If a farmer decides to keep birds indoors, then they are legally categorised as barn-reared, and eggs must be marketed as such.
But if the government orders birds to be housed because of disease risk, then the clock starts on a 16-week derogation where producers can market eggs from housed birds as free-range.
That means there will be no change to packaging or eggs’ status as free-range until early April, if the housing order does not end earlier.
In winter 2016/2017, when the derogation had expired (at the time it was only 12 weeks), the poultry sector was able to negotiate with retailers to over sticker packs with agreed wording to make it clear that birds were from hens housed for their welfare.
While that was a solution at the time, there is no guarantee it would be accepted by retailers or the government this time.
How does it affect hens?
Free-range hens are used to pop holes opening at a particular time, and will often gather around them expecting to go out.
Smothering is a risk, and so varying the time birds are let out, while they still can be, is an excellent step to take to break the habit, according to Agri-research (Ireland) consultant Keiron Forbes.
Following the 2016/2017 shut-in he surveyed packers representing about four million birds in Northern Ireland to gauge how hens had coped with the housing order.
A common recommendation was the need for time to get birds used to not going out by staging the time pop holes were opened
What are the additional management steps to consider?
Naturally ventilated sheds can struggle with closed pop holes, particularly in winter. So ensuring good airflow and keeping a close eye on litter quality is crucial.
The risk of smothering is also higher, and farmers should take measures to prevent it where possible.
Consider additional enrichments, such as lucerne bales or pecking objects. Some farmers found it effective to hang pecking objects close to pop holes to distract birds that were hoping to range.
While there is less risk of external disease, infectious bronchitis can potentially spread more quickly through a housed flock, and as temperatures rise from a higher bird density then so can red mite populations.
And even though birds may not be ranging, worm infestations are still possible, given the lifecycle of intestinal worms.
It’s also worth considering what feed additives and supplements are in diets and water to shore up any potential gut health issues caused by stress.
What might happen to egg production?
According to Mr Forbes, most producers in his survey did not see any discernible change in production, save for some recording a shock at the time of housing.
His survey reported younger flocks coming into lay being worst affected, “probably due to the stress of growing and producing at the same time”.
The better a flock was ranging, the more difficult the adjustment was.
One of the most considerable differences noted was a reduction in pale shelled eggs and, to a lesser degree, other abnormalities. Egg size was slightly larger – most likely because feed intake was generally higher.
In general, egg size uniformity also improved. It was thought that this was caused by birds not ranging, and therefore eating a more uniform amount.
Overall, Mr Forbes said that the most significant impact on the economics of egg production, based on his survey, was increased feed consumption without a significant increase in egg mass output.
But, with careful management, the modern hybrid layer proved to be resilient in the face of an unexpected challenge such as forced housing, he added.