Horizon 2020, Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement No 812777
An appropriate rearing environment that promotes proper skeletomuscular and cognitive development is crucial for housing laying hens in complex, multi-tiered aviary systems. Rearing aviaries thus should be designed in a way to improve the birds' navigational abilities, which is not only essential for finding food, water, and nest boxes but may also influence the risk for injuries, in particular keel bone damage, which may occur from collisions with the elements in the housing system. Provision of ramps connecting different tiers during the rearing phase has been shown to increase transitions between tiers, reduce behaviours indicative of hesitancy when transitioning up ramps, and decrease the prevalence of keel damage in the laying phase. The project aims to develop and employ artificial cues to direct and promote ramp usage during the early life period of chicks by utilizing the chick's innate and learned preferences. We hypothesize that the use of artificial cues in the rearing phase will lead to an earlier and increased use of ramps, which would be beneficial for the development of skeletomuscular and spatial cognitive abilities of the birds. The project is being conducted in two phases: the first phase of the project (E1 and E2) is aimed at developing and testing artificial cues in smaller experimental settings to identify the cues that provide the best results in terms of usage of ramps, skeletal strength, and spatial cognitive abilities. The second phase (E3) involves applying the identified cue in a commercial rearing setting and assessing its long-term benefits regarding welfare and practicality in commonly used rearing aviary systems.
Ultimately, we aim to provide information on the use of artificial cues to direct and encourage locomotion of the chicks within aviary during the rearing phase to the poultry industry and producers. The increase in ramp usage during the rearing phase can have long-term welfare implications in terms of improved navigational abilities leading to reduced incidence of falls and collisions, and greater skeletal strength that can resist impact injuries within the aviary. This can reduce the incidence of keel bone damage, a major welfare concern in the commercial aviaries during the laying phase. The increased usage of ramps during the rearing phase can also aid in the transition of the pullets to the laying barn and lead to earlier and improved use of different resources in the laying barn.