Publications

Gregarious nesting in relation to floor eggs in broiler breeders

Oever, A.C.M. van den; Kemp, B.; Rodenburg, T.B.; Ven, L.J.F. van de; Bolhuis, J.E.

Summary

Gregarious nesting has often been observed in laying hens, where hens prefer to visit a nest already occupied by other hens over empty nests. This may result in overcrowding of the nests which is considered a welfare issue and, moreover, can increase the economic issue of floor eggs. This study aimed to describe gregarious nesting and spatial behavior in broiler breeders and how this relates to genetic background, fearfulness and mating behavior. Five commercially available genetic lines of broiler breeders were housed in 21 pens of 550 females and 50 males (six pens for lines 1 and 2, five pens for line 3 and two pens for lines 4 and 5) during the ages 20–60 weeks. Every 10 weeks, the plumage condition and wounds were assessed of 50 random hens per pen. Avoidance distance and novel object tests were performed to assess fearfulness at four time points. Distribution of eggs over nests was observed for 6 weeks at the onset of egg production at 26 weeks of age, and use of space was recorded at four time points, while (floor) egg production was noted daily per pen. We found differences between genetic lines over time in plumage condition and prevalence of wounds. Fear of humans was highest at the earliest age tested and did not correlate with general fearfulness as assessed by the novel object test. The distribution of eggs over nests was related to genetic background and was more uneven at the earliest age compared to later ages, and a more uneven distribution was correlated with an increased percentage of floor eggs. Distribution of birds over the litter area differed between the genetic lines, and less use of the litter area was correlated with an increased fear of humans and presence of wounds, suggesting an association with aggressive mating behavior. This difference in distribution of the birds could also explain the correlation between increased presence of wounds and decreased percentage of floor eggs. It is concluded that broiler breeders do show gregarious nesting, which is affected by genetic background. Both increased gregarious nesting and wounds are related to increased floor egg percentage, which should be studied further in broiler breeder research. Genetic selection for even use of the available nests and of the litter and slatted area would therefore support both broiler breeder welfare and performance.