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Bristol University Seeks Free-Range Farmers for Beak-trimming Project

27 August 2012, at 12:33pm

UK - 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, reports Farming UK.

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 Professor Nicol. "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. 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."

Professor 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," she said. 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.

She 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."

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, Professor Nicol is now directing her plea for help to egg producers, according to Farming UK. 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 Professor Nicol. 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 Professor Nicol at the School of Veterinary Science at the University of Bristol. Alternatively, you can telephone Jon Walton or Paula Baker on 0117 331 9144.

You can read the rest of the Farming UK article by clicking here.