How does the presence of excreta affect the behavior of laying hens on scratch pads?

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Enriched cages for laying hens provide scratch pads for foraging on the wire mesh floors. Apart from foraging on scratch pads, hens also defecate on these pads, causing them to become soiled with excreta. This study was conducted to determine the relative preference of laying hens for foraging on clean (C) scratch pads or scratch pads soiled with excreta (E), and to study the behaviors performed by hens on such pads. A total of 288 laying hens was housed in 16 enriched cages (18 hens/cage), each divided into 2 compartments. On a daily basis, half of the scratch pads (one in each compartment) were removed and cleaned, while the other half were cleaned and then covered with 550 g (0.35 g/cm2) of conspecific excreta. The C and E scratch pads were then put back into the cages in a systematic order to avoid side bias. Feed was delivered automatically onto the scratch pads as a litter substrate. The frequency of visits and the total time spent performing different behaviors on C and E pads were video-recorded [the time of video recording was relative to litter (feed) delivery on the scratch pads] for a total of 10 min/d, 3 times/wk, over a period of 4 weeks. Overall, the allocation of the time budget for different behaviors was found to be—in order of greatest to least amount of time—resting, locomotor behaviors (walking and running), foraging, and dust bathing. Laying hens showed a relative preference for E scratch pads by visiting them more frequently (P = 0.001), and spent more time (P = 0.035) foraging on them, whereas they rested for more time (P < 0.001) on C scratch pads. The relative preference for E scratch pads during foraging signifies the innate importance of foraging substrates in enriched cages for laying hens. Similarly, the longer use of C scratch pads for resting indicates the need for an ideal and clean resting surface in enriched cages.

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