Animal protection report explores costs of ‘higher welfare’” poultry systems

Improving the lives of chickens only costs 13 percent more.

That’s the finding of a 32-page report from World Animal Protection, an animal welfare organization with offices in Toronto and around the globe.

“Shifting from ‘conventional’ systems to higher welfare indoor systems increases production by no more than 13.4 percent above conventional production costs, which is much lower than increases of up to 49 percent, previously projected by a (U.S.) industry-funded study,” World Animal Protection said in a news release July 22.

Wageningen University, in the Netherlands, wrote the report for World Animal Protection. Scientists looked at chicken production systems in the Netherlands, the United States, Brazil, China and Thailand, to evaluate the costs of several welfare improvements, including:

  • decreasing the number of birds inside barns (reducing stocking density);
  • using “slow-growth” chickens that take eight to 10 days longer to reach maturity (54 vs. 46 days in the U.S.);
  • adding quality of life enrichments, such as perches and straw bales;
  • increasing dark time inside barns to six hours per day from four.

If farmers adopted those methods it would mean “an increase of 6.4 – 13.4 percent above conventional production costs,” the report said.

The study didn’t look at Canadian chicken production, but World Animal Protection believes it is relevant.

“Chicken production is pretty uniform and consistent across the globe, using the conventional breeds… and the inputs,” said Lynn Kavanaugh, campaign manager for World Animal Protection Canada. “There might be slight variation in the costs, but I think… it would be pretty similar (in Canada).”

The Chicken Farmers of Canada said the study didn’t account for Canadian production methods and welfare standards.

Canada is distinct from other countries because of the National Farm Animal Care Council (NFACC) — a group that develops codes of practice for raising livestock.

“The NFACC system is the envy of countries around the world,” said Lisa Bishop-Spencer, Chicken Farmers of Canada director of brand and communications. “That council is a world leader and brings together stakeholders from farmers, veterinarians, processors… and animal welfare organizations… researchers, provincial and federal governments.”

World Animal Protection is an NFACC member and they like having input into the codes, Kavanaugh said.

At the same time, they may disagree with the details in a code of practice.

“Sometime it doesn’t go as far as we would like…. In this case, we would like to see stronger standards for chickens.”

The report from World Animal Protection focused on a few facets of chicken farming and concluded that changing those practices would improve animal welfare, Bishop-Spencer said.

That’s unrealistic because the entire system determines animal welfare.

“It’s very easy to… cherry pick the things that you think are best for the animal. There’s no one thing that is going to make for a better outcome.”

One of the report’s key recommendations is changing the genetics of chickens and adoption of “slow-growth” birds, because the “combination of fast growth and intensive indoor environments leads to serious welfare issues,” such as leg problems and bone fractures.

That conclusion is simplistic and doesn’t tell the whole story, Bishop-Spencer said from a conference in South Carolina.

“Slow growth is not better welfare,” she said. “The birds that are grown today are healthier than they’ve been…. They have stronger legs and better heart health then they did 10 years ago.”

That’s because chicken breeders consider much more than rate of gain and the amount of breast meat when they develop new genetics. They also look at heart health, leg strength and other welfare issues, Bishop-Spencer said.

Switching to slow-growth birds may sound nice, but there are potential drawbacks for the environment. More feed must be produced for the additional chickens and that feed must be trucked to chicken barns.

“The environmental impact of slower growing birds is staggering,” Bishop-Spencer said. “The U.S. did a study… (and) if only one-third of their producers switched to a slower growing bird, in terms of feed they would need an additional 670,000 tractor trailers on the road, per year. They would 6.7 million more acres of land, per year.”

World Animal Protection may take the Wageningen University model and apply it to chicken production in Canada, to evaluate the cost of adopting slow-growth breeds, reducing stocking density and other practices, Kavanaugh said.

“That way we could have a Canadian example to share with the industry.”

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