Fear, stress, and feather pecking in commercial white and brown laying hen parent-stock flocks and their relationships with production parameters

Haas, E.N. de; Kemp, B.; Bolhuis, J.E.; Groothuis, T.; Rodenburg, T.B.


Little is known about the relationship between welfare traits and production in laying hen parent stock (PS). In commercial laying hens and pure lines, it is known that aspects associated with reduced welfare such as high fear, stress, and feather pecking can have negative effects on production. Because PS hens are housed under different conditions than commercial laying hens, the relationship between welfare traits and production may differ. We therefore studied the fear response to a stationary person (SP) and novel object (NO), basal plasma corticosterone (CORT) and whole-blood serotonin levels (5-HT), and feather damage as a proxy for feather pecking in 10 Dekalb White (DW) and 10 ISA Brown (ISA) commercial PS flocks and related these to production data. Because the relationship between welfare traits and production may differ by genetic origin and group size, we also assessed genotype and group size effects. Dekalb White birds were more fearful of a SP, and had more feather damage and lower 5-HT levels than ISA birds. Genotypes did not differ in CORT. A large group size (n > 5,000) was associated with low feed intake and better feed conversion for ISA flocks. For DW flocks, high fear of the NO was associated with low BW, low egg weight, and low feed intake. For ISA flocks, high fear of the SP was associated with high mortality. For both lines, high CORT was related to low egg weight. This is the first study to associate levels of fear and CORT to production in commercial PS flocks. Management of PS flocks should take into account breed differences, group size effects, and effects of human-bird interactions. Further research is needed to determine the effects of fear, CORT, 5-HT, and feather damage in commercial PS flocks on the development of their offspring.