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The ability of laying pullets to negotiate two ramp designs as measured by bird preference and behaviour

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere4069
Number of pages18
JournalPeerJ
Volume5
DOIs
DateAccepted/In press - 30 Oct 2017
DatePublished (current) - 21 Nov 2017

Abstract

Background. Laying hens are often kept in barn or free-range systems where they must negotiate level changes in the house to access resources. However, collisions and resultant keel fractures are commonplace. Producers sometimes add ramps to make raised areas more accessible but designs vary and very little research has investigated bird preference or behaviour when using different ramp designs, or the effect of ramp design on falls and collisions.

Methods. Two ramp designs were studied in an experimental setting – a ramp made of plastic poultry slats (grid ramp, GR) and a ramp made of wooden rungs (ladder ramp, LR). 64 young female hens were trained to move to a food reward and this was used to test their behavioural responses when first negotiating the two different ramps during individual tests. Both upward and downward transitions were studied. Ramp preference was also tested using a room that replicated a commercial single-tier system with both types of ramp available. Birds were placed in this room in groups of 16 for 3 days and their use of the ramps studied.

Results. A greater percentage of birds successfully completed (reached the reward bowl) on the GR than the LR during both upward (58% vs 37%) and downward (83% vs 73%) transitions, and a smaller percentage of birds made zero attempts to use the GR than the LR (upwards: 13% vs 56%, downwards: 8% vs 26%). When making a downward transition, more hesitation behaviours were seen (head orientations, stepping on the spot, moving away) for the LR. However, more head orientations were seen for the GR during the upward transition. Birds were more likely to abort attempts (an attempt began when a bird placed both feet on the ramp) to move up the GR than the LR. Birds took longer to negotiate the LR than the GR in both directions, and more pauses were seen during a successful upward transition on the LR. Birds were more likely to move down the GR by walking/running whereas birds tended to jump over the entire LR. More collisions with the food reward bowl were seen for the LR. In the group tests, birds preferred to use the GR, with more transitions seen at all timepoints. However, in these tests, birds preferred to rest on the LR with greater numbers of birds counted on this type of ramp during scan sampling at all timepoints.

Discussion. Behavioural results suggest that the GR was easier for the birds to use than the LR, particularly on the downward transition. The GR was also less likely to result in collisions. However, the upward transition may be more difficult on the GR for some birds, potentially because of the inability to pause on a level surface during the transition. The results suggest that the GR was preferred by pullets for moving between a raised area and the ground but the LR was preferred for resting.

    Research areas

  • Animal welfare, Animal behaviour, Laying hens, Ramps, Preference, Housing design

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