The Role of Egg Production in the Etiology of Keel Bone Damage in Laying Hens
Keel bone fractures and deviations belong to the most severe animal welfare problems in laying hens and are influenced by several factors such as husbandry system and genetic background. It is likely that egg production also influences keel bone health due to the high demand of calcium for the eggshell, which is, in part, taken from the skeleton. The high estrogen plasma concentration, which is linked to the high laying performance, may also affect the keel bone as sexual steroids have been shown to influence bone health. The aim of this study was to investigate the relationship between egg production, genetically determined high laying performance, estradiol-17ß concentration, and keel bone characteristics. Two hundred hens of two layer lines differing in laying performance (WLA: high performing; G11: low performing) were divided into four treatment groups: Group S received an implant containing a GnRH agonist that suppressed egg production, group E received an implant containing the sexual steroid estradiol-17ß, group SE received both implants, and group C were kept as control hens. Between the 12th and the 62nd week of age, the keel bone of all hens was radiographed and estradiol-17ß plasma concentration was assessed at regular intervals. Non-egg laying hens showed a lower risk of keel bone fracture and a higher radiographic density compared to egg laying hens. Exogenous estradiol-17ß was associated with a moderately higher risk of fracture within egg laying but with a lower risk of fracture and a higher radiographic density within non-egg laying hens. The high performing layer line WLA showed a significantly higher fracture risk but also a higher radiographic density compared to the low performing layer line G11. In contrast, neither the risk nor the severity of deviations were unambiguously influenced by egg production or layer line. We assume that within a layer line, there is a strong association between egg production and keel bone fractures, and, possibly, bone mineral density, but not between egg production and deviations. Moreover, our results confirm that genetic background influences fracture prevalence and indicate that the selection for high laying performance may negatively influence keel bone health.