Behavior as welfare indicator for the rearing of broilers in an enriched husbandry environment—A field study

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Abstract

In modern meat production, broiler chickens are usually barn raised in deep litter where a special structured environment is typically not intended. Natural behaviors of the domestic fowl, such as running freely, pecking, scratching, flapping wings, grooming plumage, resting and sleeping undisturbed, can be restricted by lack of opportunities. Additional welfare concerns in industrial poultry farming are high stocking densities and genetic traits. Consumer surveys show an increasing public awareness of problems in livestock farming and the willingness to make a difference by spending more money on food coming from animal-friendly production. For this segment, the market offers organically produced products at higher costs, whereas the possibility for an intermediate product that meets animal welfare, consumer requirements, and economic aspects has barely been used. By increasing the environmental complexity with the provision of perches (15.9 m per 1000 birds), straw bales (1.7 per 1000 birds), pecking stones (1.1 per 1000 birds) and access to a roofed outside run (624 m2) and by using a reduced stocking density (16 birds per m2) and selecting Cobb Sasso 175 as a slower-growing broiler strain, we intended to improve bird welfare. We therefore established, tested, and scientifically evaluated an alternative rearing concept for broiler chickens on its way to market suitability. In addition, a conventional farm with Ross 308 broilers reared at a stocking density of 23 birds per m2 was evaluated for comparison. The study included 6 rearing periods per concept and an additional 2 rearing periods with the broiler strain Ross 308 under the alternative concept. For the behavioral observations, video recordings were carried out simultaneously in both barns during all rearing periods in a weekly 24-hour interval. Results show that Cobb Sasso broilers reared with the alternative concept were more active during the observation intervals than conventionally reared Ross 308 broilers. The provided enrichment was well accepted and used. The straw bales were used as shelter for resting behavior during the early rearing phase and later as pecking objects and elevated resting areas. Perches were used as of day 9. The provision of environmental enrichment in broiler rearing can stimulate species-specific behaviors and therefore can increase animal welfare while meeting consumer requirements in an economic way.

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