Feather Damage As A Welfare Barometer
One of the most pressing problems Canadian farmers are facing today is the feather pecking of commercial egg-laying hens due to crowded housing conditions. You might wonder, why is so important for hens to have healthy feathers? The feather has many important functions, like helping hens with their ability to move, fly, and navigate their environment. Those functions are especially important in non-cage housing, which is why the topic becomes so important as we are trying to create an uncaged world for animals. In fact, intact feathers are key to bird welfare.
Many countries are trying to improve the situation; A farmer’s association in Canada, for example has suggested shifting away from conventional cages and starting to use “enriched” and non-cage housing systems. With increasing awareness of the importance of feather cover care, the need for accurate feather damage scoring systems has come up. To be effective, a scoring system would need to be less time consuming than direct observation, and it must be easy to understand, which would make it usable for every farmer.
In this study, researchers from the University of Guelph, Ontario decided to create a widely usable scoring system by picking two from already existing scoring systems. They took the LayWel and AssureWel systems, tested both on statistical qualities, and modified them so they would be easy to use.
Scoring systems detecting feather damage look quite similar to scoring systems commonly used among people like the Apgar scoring system, which is used to screen a vitality of a newborn baby. Those scoring systems consist of categories that are evaluated on scales representing the level of normality. The scoring system detecting feather damage uses 0-2-point scales, where 0 represents intact cover and 2 represents big damage in feather cover, and the categories represent body parts. Besides description, scoring systems often use photos.
Comparing LayWel and AssureWel, AssueWel showed higher reliability then LayWel as well as less time spent on testing. Scoring using AssureWel takes only 30 min per 50 birds, compared to 50 min per 50 birds using LayWel. The instructions were modified for farmers to make the scoring system easy to use. For example, to differentiate small feather damage from big, the authors suggest that you can use a Canadian two-dollar coin (sometimes called a Toonie) as a measurement tool. If you are screening a hen with at least one bald patch bigger than a ‘Toonie,’ you mark number two in the scoring system. While ‘Toonie’ isn’t a standardized measurement unit, it’s something every farmer knows and very well likely has in their pocket.
The authors believe that, using this scoring system, feather damage will become easy to detect and treat. As mentioned at the beginning of this article, it is especially important in Canada, because it helps evaluate the positive effects of non-cage housing on bird welfare, as well as the negative effects of caged housing. As animal advocates, we work hard for a cageless world where no animals are kept to be consumed, but in the meantime, this tool could improve many birds’ lives by reliably identifying feather damage without special qualification and effort.