Smothering in UK free-range flocks. Part 2: investigating correlations between disease, housing and management practices

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Smothering, when birds group together in a way that results in death from suffocation, is a welfare and economic concern for the egg industry. This questionnaire-based study explored correlations between disease, housing, management practices and smothering on free-range farms. A binomial logistic regression approach was used to test whether question responses predicted occurrence of nest box smothers (NBS) and panic and recurring smothers (PSRS) on farms. Breed (P=0.008) and nest box manufacturer (P=0.014) predicted NBS. Breed and nest box design have been previously reported to affect nesting behaviour. The affect of nest box manufacturer found in this study may illustrate the effect of nest box design features or house layouts. Nest box manufacturer (P=0.009), feeding oyster grit or grain on the litter (P<0.001) and range use on a sunny day (P<0.001) also predicted PSRS. Implementing some management practices to encourage desirable behaviours (eg ranging) may contribute to smothering, whereas some management practices such as those aimed at occupying birds may be beneficial, illustrating the delicate balance of factors involved in free-range egg production. It is hoped that these results will stimulate further work exploring the suitability of housing design and management of laying hens in light of smothering.

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