This year, Egg Farmers of Alberta introduced feather cover monitoring to the record keeping books with the goal of helping our farmers identify issues early and to act as a tool for managing feather cover. As you are starting to get more comfortable with monitoring feather cover, you may be wondering what to do if you identify an increase in feather loss in your flock.
Feather loss in the back of the head and rump area is a sign of injurious feather pecking. This is the most common cause of feather loss and is believed to be redirected foraging behavior. Feather pecking can be a learned behavior and can be difficult to stop, so catching it early and taking preventative measures is vital. In addition to monitoring feather cover records, you can identify feather cover issues by watching:
- If feathers are disappearing from the floor, this can be an early sign that they are being ingested and could lead to feather pecking. There may be nutritional deficiencies.
- If you see bloody eggs come to the packer, investigate right away as it can indicate a problem with vent pecking. Determine where in the barn the bloody eggs are coming from. Monitor that area to determine what the cause may be. Is there too much light in the nest? Is there a noise or lighting issue creating stress in the birds in that area?
Every case of feather pecking is different and there is no one solution that will help you manage the problem. In fact, it has been found that the more different solutions used in combination, the lower the chances of feather loss. Below we have outlined some of the factors and solutions to consider as you work to manage feather cover in your flock:
- The most common cause of injurious pecking is CHANGE, which causes stress in the birds. Bird stress can result in feather pulling and pecking:
o Make any changes in your barn slowly to avoid stressing your flock.
o Pay close attention to birds after sudden changes in weather, sudden noises or bright light.
o If you are noticing more feather pecking, and you believe stress may be the reason, take time to sit and watch your flock. You can learn a lot about what might be
impacting them by observing.
- Keep birds interested with enrichments in the barn. When chickens were wild, they spent up to 80% of their time looking for food by exploring with their beaks. In a farm setting, food is provided but your flock still has the natural instinct to explore with their beaks. Some enrichment options include well managed litter areas, pecking stones, novel objects like hanging ropes with knots and running the feeder more often.
- Feather pecking can be a sign that birds are not getting enough nutrients. It is important to work with a nutritionist who understands that loose flocks have different nutritional requirements. Work with your nutritionist, providing them with regular information on your flock and work together to determine:
o Are your birds getting enough fiber?
o What about protein? Sometimes protein is reduced to control egg size but this can create feather pecking challenges.
o Is there too much salt in your flock’s diet?
- Bird density plays an important role in feather pecking. If birds are competing for space or amenities (like perches or nest boxes) this can trigger feather pecking behavior. You may need to consider reducing the flock placement if you see ongoing feather pecking issues in multiple flocks and other causes have been ruled out. You may have the right number of birds in the barn but within the barn there may be areas that have a higher than optimal density. For instance shadows, light flickers, drafts, low water pressure, access to amenities may create “traffic jams” where the birds are either trying to move towards something they like or need, or away from unfavorable conditions.
- Lighting Factors:
o Reducing the light level in the barn can stop feather pecking from spreading. Using red lights has also been a successful strategy for some farmers.
o Ensure lights are not flickering, as this can cause stress in your flock
o Some farmers have found that introducing natural light can reduce feather pecking.
- Sourcing the right pullets for your facility can help prevent feather pecking:
o Match the pullet rearing and lay environment as closely as possible. Everything from the type of drinker and feeder, perch type, litter type, lighting, feeder timing and
temperature should all be considered and matched as closely as possible.
o Source quality pullets that are calm, uniform in size and in good health.
For more resources on managing feather cover, check out the Feather Cover page on EFA’s Producer Website, which can be found under Animal Care, Best Practices.