Free range indoor broiler chickens have better welfare on average

Published on
June 21, 2022

Welfare of broiler chickens housed according to the requirements of the Better Life 1 star hallmark of the Dutch Animal Protection Organisation (free range indoor system) is on average indeed better as compared to the welfare of broiler chickens housed in conventional systems. Flocks housed according to the ‘Chicken of Tomorrow’ housing requirements for the Dutch retail performed in between conventional and Better Life one star. These are the results of a unique analysis by Wageningen Livestock Research using flock data collected in 2017 and 2018. These data also showed a large variation in welfare between flocks within the same production system. Data indicated that flocks in each system can show a good welfare performance. Housing and management conditions thus seem to be important for welfare performance, in addition to the requirements for the various production systems.

Different production systems for broilers

Dutch broiler chickens are generally housed in four types of production systems:

  • The conventional production system using fast-growing broiler strains is according to the minimum legal standards.
  • The free range indoor system is according to the requirements of the Better Life one star hallmark of the Dutch Animal Protection Organization.
  • Until 2024 broiler meat produced for the Dutch retail is produced according to the requirements of the different ‘Chicken of tomorrow’ production concepts, such as the ‘Nieuwe AH Kip’ or ‘Nieuwe standaard kip’. These production requirements are in between those of the conventional and Better Life one star system with respect to animal welfare.
  • The organic production concept is according to the requirements of SKAL and the EU.

Indicators and data of three systems

In the ‘Greenwell’ project we used data of a large number of flocks that have been collected by the slaughter plant and on-farm. For each of the three production systems that have been compared (conventional, Chicken of Tomorrow, Better Life one star) data were collected of at least 1889 flocks. The organic production system could not be included in the analysis because of insufficient data.

Data of five animal-based welfare indicators (footpad dermatitis, hock burn, breast irritation, scratches, mortality) and three management or resource-based indicators (early post-hatch feeding, presence of environmental enrichment, stocking density) were collected for each flock. These data were used to determine the welfare performance of each of the three production systems.

The Welfare Quality-approach has been used to assign scores to individual welfare indicators. The sum of these scores was used to calculate a total welfare score for each flock. The welfare performance has been calculated for the broiler on-farm stage only, so the parent stock stage and transport and slaughter stage were excluded.

Variation in broiler welfare between systems

Broiler production systems with more strict welfare requirements had on average better welfare scores for nearly all individual welfare indicators and a better total welfare score, which was according to our expectations. Interestingly, a large variation in welfare scores was found for flocks within production systems. This caused a large overlap in total welfare scores between the three production systems. E.g., the best performing conventional flock had a better welfare score than the worst performing flock in the Better Life one star system.

When only the five animal-based measures were included, the overlap in welfare scores between the systems even increased. The highest possible scores were then reached in flocks of each system. This suggest an important role for management and housing conditions in addition to the requirements for each production system.

The dataset showed the largest variation in flock welfare scores for the conventional and Chicken of Tomorrow flocks, and the smallest variation for the Better Life one star system flocks. When the welfare scores per farm (thus not per flock) was determined, it was shown that for both the conventional and the Chicken of Tomorrow system farms could be identified that were consistently better or worse than the median score, while for Better Life one star farms predominantly scored around the median. This suggest that there is especially room for improvement within conventional and Chicken of tomorrow production systems, although it should be taken into account that these two systems had a higher number of flocks in the dataset compared to the Better Life one star system.