16 European research centers, including ILVO, are launching a large-scale investigation over the next 4 years to map out the fundamental and more practical causes and consequences of stress in laying hens throughout their lives. The starting point is the EU ban on laying batteries in 2012, which has to a degree missed its target of improving animal welfare. They aim for renewed production systems that are feasible and optimal for animal welfare.
ChickenStress Project Coordinator Dr. Tom Smulders (Newcastle University UK), expert in evolutionary neuroscience: "After the abolition of the battery systems, we discovered unexpected new, serious animal welfare problems. We now want to tackle them very broadly. The citizen is demanding for the best possible living conditions for chickens."
Animal welfare goes along with productivity
Previous studies showed serious animal welfare problems in free-range and volière chicken housing systems (two alternatives to laying batteries). More hens are experiencing painful breastbone fractures. When given access to the outdoors, more chickens are more likely to become infected by pathogens. And the chances of chicken cannibalism or feather-picking are increasing. An outbreak of feather pecking costs a company easily 5% more premature deaths. Further, it is known that hens without fractures lay more, produce larger eggs, and consume less feed and water. "It is therefore clear that improved chicken welfare can lead to fewer production losses," says Frank Tuytens (ILVO). "That is why we need solutions that will ensure that Europe retains its lead in terms of improved animal welfare."
Fundamental research on stress response
Through a number of doctorates, the ChickenStress project wants to find out how the stress response is regulated in the birds’ brain. And how genetics, the early environment, and the current habitat of the layer can reduce its chronic stress. ILVO will work on the work package 'environmental factor with a focus on free-range chickens': To what extent are there correlations between the conditions during hatching of the eggs and during the first rearing phase? And what about use of the outdoor area and the animal welfare of the hen? Can we measure on the basis of neurobiological markers how both early and later living conditions affect the stress resistance of the chicken?
Scientists and poultry sector companies, in cooperation
The ChickenStress European Training Network (ETN) aims to develop the best possible animal welfare standards for and with the egg producers. The researchers call it unique that the experts in neurology, physiology and ethology (here: behavior of birds and poultry) are working together with four major players from the poultry industry, including Hendrix Genetics and Vencomatic. "The entire life cycle of egg production is covered. In this way, we guarantee that practical knowledge is also created, which not only remains within the academic world but which also reaches the industry, the public institutions and the general public," says Smulders.
Marie Curie: International exchange of doctoral students
The ChickenStress project is financially supported by the European Marie Curie Training and Network Programme (MSCA ETN). The compulsory international exchange is typical of this form of funding for scientific research. The 14 young researchers who are put on the work packages in the various European research centers are encouraged to obtain their PhD in another country. ILVO researcher Frank Tuyttens will, for example, be chief promoter of a Canadian PhD student (who will be enrolled in the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine of UGent) and co-promoter of two other PhD students with a foreign main promoter. Yet another young researcher will also be doing an internship at ILVO. "They provide a multidisciplinary training environment that will prepare them for careers in the academic, policy, or industry sectors."
Greet Riebbels: firstname.lastname@example.org, M 0486 26 00 14
Frank Tuyttens: email@example.com, M + 3292722605