Lights out for better bird health

Changes to lighting requirements in chicken and turkey barns are among the most significant updates to the Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Hatching Eggs, Breeders, Chickens and Turkeys, says a chicken farmer who helped update the code.

Vernon Froese of Manitoba was chair of the code development committee, which posted the finalized document June 15 through the National Farm Animal Care Council.

“The main change is basically the lighting program. Most farmers already are having a laying program for birds, but there may be a few who have to start a lighting program or controller,” said Froese.

The code requires birds to have at least four hours of darkness in barns with darkness defined as 20 percent of normal light.

A scientific committee that studied poultry welfare as part of the code development process concluded that light intensity does not affect growth, feed conversion or mortality of broiler chickens, but it does influence behaviour.

The committee said feed efficiency for broilers improves if the birds are given periods of darkness, and mortality increases with day length. There is limited research on light as it relates to turkeys.

The new code involved Chicken Farmers of Canada, Canadian Poultry and Egg Processors, Turkey Farmers of Canada and Canadian Hatching Egg Producers.

Froese said the groups have many things in common when it comes to welfare and management.

The 15-member code development committee also included representatives from the humane society, government, veterinary profession, research and livestock transport.

Froese said decisions were made by consensus, which involved many lengthy meetings over several years.

“We really had no very contentious issues,” he said.

“We had a lot of discussions on some areas. There will be a new requirement on lighting programs for chicken and turkeys. We had good discussion on euthanization methods. That always changes. We arrived at conclusions on these issues, so I can’t say there was anything very contentious.”

Density, which is the amount of space provided per bird, often arises in public discourse, but broilers and turkeys are raised in free-run barns.

Froese said the code requirements of 31 kilograms of bird per sq. metre are unchanged from the previous version of the code.

Requirements in the code indicate “birds must have enough space to move freely and be able to stand normally, turn around and stretch their wings without difficulty.”

As well, space must be sufficient to allow all birds to sit at the same time.

Froese said the new code will not lead to immediate changes in the various industries to which it applies. It will be reviewed first and compared to existing practices to see if changes are required.

As for policing adherence to the code of practice, he said Chicken Farmers of Canada has a process to enforce the requirements.

“Every provincial board is in charge of auditing the animal care program in their province, and because we’re supply management, they have the authority to implement, to enforce the animal care program. We take it very seriously,” he said.

“Always the welfare of the animal comes first. We don’t do this to impress people. We do this because we care for our animals.”

The full code can be viewed at www.nfacc.ca/pdfs/codes/poultry_code_EN.pdf.

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