Fast- and slower-growing broilers respond similarly to a reduction in stocking density with regard to gait, hock burn, skin lesions, cleanliness, and performance

van der Eijk, Jerine A.J.; van Harn, Jan; Gunnink, Henk; Melis, Stephanie; van Riel, Johan W.; de Jong, Ingrid C.


There is an increasing trend toward broiler production systems with higher welfare requirements. Breed and stocking density are considered key factors for broiler welfare that are often specified as criteria for such higher welfare systems. However, it remains unknown how slower-growing broilers respond to a reduction in stocking density with regard to their welfare and performance, and whether this response differs from fast-growing broilers. Therefore, we compared fast- (F) and slower-growing broilers (S) housed at 4 different stocking densities (24, 30, 36, and 42 kg/m2, based on slaughter weight) and measured their welfare scores (i.e., gait, footpad dermatitis, hock burn, skin lesions and cleanliness), litter quality and performance. The experiment had a 2 × 4 factorial design with 4 replicates (pens) per treatment (32 pens in total). Thinning (15%) was done in a 50/50 male/female ratio at 38 (F) and 44 (S) d of age (estimated body weight of 2.2 kg). We hypothesized that breeds would respond differently to a reduction in stocking density. Contrary to our hypothesis, only one interaction between breed and stocking density was found on footpad dermatitis, indicating that fast- and slower-growing broilers generally showed similar responses to a reduction in stocking density. F broilers showed a steeper decline in the prevalence of footpad dermatitis with reducing stocking density compared to S broilers. Broilers housed at lower stocking densities (24 and/or 30 kg/m2) showed improved welfare measures, litter quality and performance compared to those housed at higher stocking densities (36 and/or 42 kg/m2). S broilers had better welfare scores (gait, footpad dermatitis and skin lesions), litter quality and lower performance compared to F broilers. In conclusion, reducing stocking density improved welfare of both F and S broilers, but more for F broilers in case of footpad dermatitis, and using S broilers improved welfare compared to F broilers. Reducing stocking density and using slower-growing broilers benefits broiler welfare, where combining both would further improve broiler welfare.