The transition to cage-free systems within the US and across the globe will bring massive improvement to the lives of billions of laying hens but requires a paradigm shift in breeding. Current breeding programs are based on group sizes of less than 50 animals. While such a configuration has delivered benefits for hens in cage housing, the myriad of behavioral and welfare problems (e.g., feather and toe pecking, keel fractures, etc.) experienced by early adopters of cage-free systems are a testament to the challenges awaiting those who are yet to make the transition. Our collaboration, by combining state of the art sensor technology, analysis, and selective breeding within an academic and industry partnership that utilizes large group sizes, will advance the fundamentals of genetic evaluation for a new world of cage-free systems ultimately affecting more than 20% of the world's laying hens.
The project will focus on a single hybrid (Dekalb White) to boost animal welfare qualities across cage-free systems while maintaining productivity. The overall process will involve simultaneous assessments by the ZTHZ and Hendrix Genetics in large and small groups, respectively. Individual assessments of animals allow us to select pure line genetics of sires and dams based on welfare, health, and productivity. Unified assessments in cage-free conditions alongside information from Hendrix Genetics global sites will yield a commercial hybrid manifesting a robust balance of welfare, health, and economic traits for commercial cage-free housing.
ZTHZ-based hens will also be evaluated using metrics of movement and location patterns developed within the ZTHZ and previously shown to correlate with health and welfare measures. Given the remarkable consistency of the behavioural patterns within hens over time and their association with health and welfare, the ability to remotely monitor hen behavior will allow assessment of relevant traits without disturbing the hens, a major advantage over current breeding programs. While a novel development that takes advantage of the latest sensor technology and 'big data' analysis, our tracking methodology also allows data to be collected from individual hens in large groups in a manner not possible in cage systems. Excitingly, tracking system data is expected to correlate to existing traits within the current breeding program, as well as to novel traits that lie at the intersection of commercial productivity and consumer demands for high welfare.