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Animals 2019, 9(2), 53; https://doi.org/10.3390/ani9020053

Stocking Density Affects Stress and Anxious Behavior in the Laying Hen Chick During Rearing

1
Behavior and Welfare Group, Department of Farm Animal Health, Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, Utrecht University, P.O. Box 80151, 3508 TD Utrecht, The Netherlands
2
Biopsychology, Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, Faculty of Psychology, Ruhr-University Bochum, 44780 Bochum, Germany
*
Author to whom correspondence should be addressed.
Received: 22 January 2019 / Revised: 5 February 2019 / Accepted: 6 February 2019 / Published: 10 February 2019
(This article belongs to the Special Issue Impact of Environment and Stressors on Animal Welfare)
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Simple Summary

‘Crowding’, keeping too many birds per m2, is one of the largest welfare concerns in the poultry industry. It is therefore worrisome that there is a gap in research investigating the effects of high stocking densities during the rearing phase of laying hens. This study evaluated anxious behavior and corticosterone levels, a hormone involved in the stress response, during the first 10 weeks of laying hen chicks housed under three different crowding conditions: undercrowding, conventional crowding, and overcrowding. We found that overcrowded chicks displayed more anxious behavior compared to undercrowded chicks. Corticosterone levels were elevated in both extreme groups in week 3, but dropped to values of the conventional crowding group at week 10. We conclude that current conventional stocking densities do not seem to impair the welfare state of the laying hen chick, and that a three-fold in- or decrease of density influences stress and anxiety, but within the adaptive capacity of the chick. Important side-notes to this conclusion are that an increase of stocking density did result in a slower rate of adaptation, and that we currently do not know if there are long-term consequences of different crowding densities reaching into the laying period.

Abstract

The recent increases in stocking density, in extreme cases resulting in ‘crowding’, have a major impact on poultry welfare. In contrast to available research on adult laying hens, there is a gap in the literature studying the rearing phase. The present study investigated the effects of stocking density during the rearing period on the welfare of the laying hen chick. The chicks were housed under one of three crowding conditions, increasing with age: undercrowding (500-1000-1429 cm2 per chick), conventional crowding (167-333-500 cm2 per chick), or overcrowding (56-111-167 cm2 per chick). The parameters evaluated encompassed behavioral and physiological factors related to anxiety and stress. We found that during the first 6 weeks, overcrowded chicks displayed more anxious behavior than undercrowded chicks, and both extreme densities induced higher corticosterone levels compared to chicks housed under conventional crowding. At 10 weeks of age, plasma corticosterone had dropped to the level of conventional crowding group in both groups, whereas feather corticosterone remained high only in the overcrowded group. We conclude that current conventional stocking densities do not seem to impair the welfare state of the laying hen chick, and that a three-fold increase or decrease of density influences corticosterone levels and anxious behavior, but within the adaptive capacity of the chick. Important side notes to this conclusion are that an increase of stocking density did result in a slower rate of adaptation, and that there could be long-term consequences of both the different stocking densities and/or increased costs of adaptation. View Full-Text
Keywords: poultry; rearing phase; stocking density; crowding; stress; corticosterone; anxiety poultry; rearing phase; stocking density; crowding; stress; corticosterone; anxiety
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This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution License which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited (CC BY 4.0).
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von Eugen, K.; Nordquist, R.E.; Zeinstra, E.; van der Staay, F.J. Stocking Density Affects Stress and Anxious Behavior in the Laying Hen Chick During Rearing. Animals 2019, 9, 53.

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