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It is Valuable to Monitor the Movement of Cage-Free Chickens?

Prafulla Regmi says that nearly 35% of American laying hens are now raised in cage-free conditions. This is good news to meet the rising demand for cage-free eggs. However, this production method has its own production challenges. This is because birds in cages are more susceptible to feather-pecking, cannibalism, and smothering as well as keel fractures.

Regmi said that there are also nutritional problems and mislaid eggs. Growers can monitor chicken movements and identify potential welfare issues. Space utilization is affected by many factors, including housing design, bird genetics, and the rearing environment.

Although cage-free environments provide more space and larger colonies, they are also more complicated.

Regmi stated that birds are more likely to manage their farmer than the farmer during a presentation at Midwest Poultry Conference. “The dynamics and physiology of birds could give clues as to how to monitor individual animals’ welfare.”

How to Monitor Chicken Activity

Regmi was referring to a study that utilized a machine vision-based method to monitor broiler chicken distribution. 1 This machine vision-based method uses artificial intelligence approaches to analyze video recordings and images taken from a camera. To monitor activity in cage-free pen environments, wearable technologies such as accelerometers or radio-frequency identification systems (RFID) have been tested. Regmi and his team of researchers used RFID to track vertical space usage within the multi-tiered aviary system. Monitoring cage-free movement would be more difficult as it is more of a manual process.

The experiment was conducted using a commercial brown egg strain. Regmi explained that birds in the pullet stage were raised in a litter and platform facility.

The hen phase used multi-tiered rooms within the aviary. There were four rooms that contained four sections each. This allowed for 144 birds per section, or 1 square foot per bird. The investigators randomly selected 40 birds from each section of the room. Before deployment, a passive RFID tag was embedded in the bird’s metal leg bands. Antennas with travel-wave technology were placed at the entry points of the top, middle, and bottom tiers of the bird’s aviary systems.

Regmi stated that the RFID reader recorded the location of the hen and was verified by location observation on the video. The correct location was then identified with 87.25% accuracy.

How is Chicken Activity Classified?

Regmi explained that birds were divided into three types based on how often they changed tiers during the experiment.

As you might expect, the keel deviations and fractures in birds with high activity (100%) were greater than in those with low activity (55.56%).

Regmi stated that there was “significant individual variation in space utilization and resource use within a flock.” Regmi suggested that low-activity birds had lower productivity and could have been explained by the large social structures within large flocks.

Regmi said that other studies also showed that birds suffering from keel fractures tend to use top-tier perches, probably to avoid harming the birds.

He concluded that more research was needed to understand how birds react to cage-free environments and to find ways to reduce the challenges.

Editor’s note: The US Poultry and Egg Association grant provided funding support for Regmi’s study.

1 Guo, Y.; Chai, L.; Aggrey, S.E. 1 Guo, Y.; Chai, L.; Aggrey, S.E. Sensors 2020, 20, 3179. https://doi.org/10.3390/s20113179

Monitoring chicken movement in cage-free birds gives valuable feedback was first published on Poultry Health Today.

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