Effects of elevated grids on growing male chickens differing in growth performance
Pullets, i.e. chickens of layer lines are often raised in housings equipped with perches. In contrast, broiler chickens most often are raised in a barren environment that lacks any three-dimensional structures, even though broilers also are motivated to use elevated structures. In addition, environmental enrichment may improve welfare problems in broiler chickens, such as skeletal disorders or contact dermatitis. Due to ethical reasons, currently there are attempts to fatten the male chickens of layer strains or to use dual purpose strains. However, there is only limited knowledge on the behavior of these chickens until now. The aim of this study was to test the use of elevated grids and their effect on animal-based indicators (e.g. physical condition). In 2 successive trials, we kept a total of 1,217 male chickens from three strains (Lohmann Dual, Lohmann Brown Plus, Ross 308) that show differences in growth performance in 24 pens (2 trials x 3 strains x 8 pens). In half of the pens, grids were offered at three different heights (enriched groups); in the other half of the pens, no elevated structures were installed (control groups). We recorded the number of birds using the grids at the different heights as well as locomotor activity, walking ability, plumage cleanliness, and the footpad health of chickens. Chickens with low and medium growth performance preferred the highest grids during both the light and dark periods. In contrast, fast-growing chickens used the lowest grid more frequently. Fast-growing chickens kept in the enriched pens tended to have a higher level of locomotor activity and reduced chest cleanliness. Chickens from the medium growth performance strain showed better walking ability when kept in the enriched pens. Enrichment did not affect any of the welfare measures in the slow-growing chickens. These findings suggest that elevated structures may improve chicken welfare, particularly for medium growing chickens. For fast-growing chickens we found evidence for an improvement of animal-based indicators although they used the elevated structures less. However, regardless of growth performance, elevated grids offer the birds an opportunity to rest in a species-specific manner.