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Free-range egg production in Australia – industry trends and challenges

Authors:
  • University of New England (Australia) - City University of Hong Kong

Abstract and Figures

In Australia, free-range egg production is a rapidly growing sector with an estimated grocery market value share of 48% of total table egg production. It can be estimated that around 200 commercial free-range egg producers are currently active. This report reflects the current situation these farmers are facing. Adverse climate conditions and Avian Influenza are a concurrent threat to the free-range egg industry. However, on-range feeding is a common feed strategy performed by up to 47.5% of free-range egg producers. With six states and two territories, no national regulations regarding free range hen housing and egg production are in place. In general, two housing systems can be distinguished: fixed housing and mobile housing. The use of guard animals to protect hens from predators is common. The large variety of farming systems and management procedures is reflected in the variety of challenges free-range hens are facing. In a recent survey, free-range layer producers attributed their losses to predation (42%), heat stress (37%), cannibalism (37%), grass impaction (21%), diseases (21%), and malnutrition (5%). Furthermore, internal and external parasites can be considered as widely prevalent. Producers identified that research should be conducted in welfare (52%), pasture management (54%), nutrition (44%), bird health (44%), housing (40%), and economics (29%). With those demands currently under investigation, Australia can be considered as highly active in the field of applied research focusing on free range-egg production.
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LOHMANN Information | Vol. 49 (2), October 2015
The Australian egg industry
In Australia, free-range egg production is
a rapidly growing sector with an estima-
ted grocery market value share of 48% of
total table egg production in 2014, which
reects an increase of 20% compared to
2013 (AECL, 2014). The retail egg value sale
of barn laid eggs in 2014 was 9% (increase
of 11% compared to 2013), and those of
specialty eggs 2% (increase of 18% com-
pared to 2013) (AECL, 2014). With one of
the major retailers aiming to phase out
cage eggs by 2018, the demand for free-
range eggs is expected to continue its up-
ward trend. In 2013, a total of 5,666 registe-
red agricultural businesses produced eggs
in Australia (AECL, 2014). The total number
of egg producers that housed more than
500 laying hens was 355. Those producers
can be considered the key players of the
Australian egg industry. Considering that
Free-range egg production in
Australia –
industry trends and
challenges
Isabelle Ruhnke
Dr. Isabelle Ruhnke is a Postdoctoral Reserach Fellow at the University of New England, Australia. She
graduated in Veterinary Medicine from the Freie Universität and performed work for her doctoral thesis
on glucose transport and gastrointestinal diseases at the Gastrointestinal Laboratory at Texas A&M Uni-
versity, USA. She worked on the impact of feed technologies and feed particle size on broiler chickens
and laying hens at the Institute of Animal Nutrition, Freie Universität Berlin. Nutrition, health and welfare
of chickens became her passion, so Dr. Ruhnke decided to dedicate her future to the nutritional manage-
ment of free range laying hens.
To contact the author:
iruhnke@une.edu.au
Abstract
In Australia, free-range egg production is a rapidly growing sector with an estimated grocery market value share of 48% of total table
egg production. It can be estimated that around 200 commercial free-range egg producers are currently active. This report reects
the current situation these farmers are facing. Adverse climate conditions and Avian Inuenza are a concurrent threat to the free-
range egg industry. However, on-range feeding is a common feed strategy performed by up to 47.5% of free-range egg producers.
With six states and two territories, no national regulations regarding free range hen housing and egg production are in place. In
general, two housing systems can be distinguished: xed housing and mobile housing. The use of guard animals to protect hens
from predators is common. The large variety of farming systems and management procedures is reected in the variety of challenges
free-range hens are facing. In a recent survey, free-range layer producers attributed their losses to predation (42%), heat stress (37%),
cannibalism (37%), grass impaction (21%), diseases (21%), and malnutrition (5%). Furthermore, internal and external parasites can be
considered as widely prevalent. Producers identied that research should be conducted in welfare (52%), pasture management (54%),
nutrition (44%), bird health (44%), housing (40%), and economics (29%). With those demands currently under investigation, Australia
can be considered as highly active in the eld of applied research focusing on free range-egg production.
Keywords:
Laying hens, management, free-range, feeding, predators
Vol. 49 (2), October 2015 | LOHMANN Information
25
it is not economic to invest on cage infra-
structure housing less than 10,000 hens, at
least 5,496 farms are free-range egg pro-
ducers and 186 farms are free-range egg
producers with more than 500 hens (key
players). Free-range egg production in
Australia, whilst rapidly expanding, is also
evolving. Establishing free-range egg pro-
duction enterprises that meet retailer and
consumer demands remains a challenge
for the poultry industry. In Australia, a total
of 14,618 million laying hens are currently
registered (AECL, 2014).
Housing of free-range laying hens is
orientated towards the Model Code of
Practice for the Welfare of Animals (CSIRO,
2002). Referring to this Code, the indoor
stocking density for all cage free systems
should not exceed 30 kg body weight/
m2(15 hens/m²). The oor may consist of
litter material or wire/slatted ooring, with
gaps between the slats not exceeding
25 cm. According to the Model Code of
Practice, the maximum stocking density
for the outdoor area is 1,500 hens/hecta-
re (6.6 m²/hen) (CSIRO, 2002). However,
any higher stocking density is acceptable
when regular rotation of the hens onto
fresh range areas is performed and hens
are continuously provided with fresh pas-
ture cover. This stocking density is also re-
ferred to in the standards from the Royal
Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to
Animals (RSPCA, 2011). In comparison, in-
dividual accreditation bodies, such as the
Free Range Egg and Poultry Australia Ltd.
(FREPA) implement dierent standards.
The indoor stocking density of FREPA gui-
delines is determined by the ock size and
should not exceed 10 hens/m2 when up
to 1000 birds/ock are housed, 9 hens/
m2 when up to 2000 birds are housed,
and 8 birds/m2 when up to 3000 birds
are housed (FREPA, 2015). However, FRE-
PA does not dene a stocking density for
the outdoor area but refers to the Model
Code of Practice and “the range area must
be capable of continued production of
vegetation”. The Australian Certied Or-
ganic Standards regulate indoor stocking
density more strictly compared to the Mo-
del Code of Practice and FREPA standards,
focusing on 16 kg body weight/m2 (8
.hens/m²) and a minimum of 18 cm perch
space, when at least 1/3rd of the oor is
covered with solid oor space and litter
material. The stocking density on the ran-
ge is comparable at 1,500 hens/ha (xed
range) (ACO, 2013) but, when range rota-
tion is performed, stocking density out-
doors should not exceed 2,500 birds/ha.
While Queensland (QLD) is the only state
that has a mandatory regulation of their
free-range hen stocking density in place
(the stocking density was raised from
1,500 hens/ha range area (6.6 m²/hen) to
10,000 hens/ha (1 m²/hen) in June 2013),
no other legally binding regulations are
currently in place in any state. Because
of the lack of detailed governmental re-
gulations and uniform standards, a broad
spectrum of free-range hen management
and housing systems can be observed. In
particular, the outdoor stocking density
is highly debated and a nationwide uni-
form denition of “free-range” warranted.
In June 2015, the elected state peak body
representatives (also known as the Egg
Farmers Australia) agreed upon a maxi-
mum range allowance of 10,000 hens/ha
range area to be referred to the fair trade
and business regulations, to be included
into the draft of the constraint consumer
law in 2016. In order to answer the ques-
tion of the impact of stocking density
on hen welfare and behavior, research is
being conducted by the Commonwealth
Scientic and Industrial Research Organi-
sation (CSIRO) and the University of New
England. The discussion of a nationwide
denition of “free-range” extends beyond
the stocking density on the range. The
Australian Consumer and Competition
Commission oversees the ranging activity
of hens housed by major egg producers
and decisions of the Federal Court re-
vealed that, in order to declare eggs “free-
range”, “laying hens have to move about
freely on an open range on most ordinary
days” (FCA, 2014).
In order to investigate current farm practi-
ces of free-range egg producers all over
Australia, an on-line survey and subse-
quent farm visits were undertaken in 2014
(Singh et al., 2015, Ruhnke et al., 2015a).
With a total of 41 egg farmers completing
79 questions regarding their farm, range,
feed, rearing, production and health status,
as well as the environmental impact and
their adaption to the free range system,
current challenges and research priori-
ties could be identied. The predominant
breed of hens used included Isa Brown
(43%), Hy-line Brown (40%), or others such
as Lohmann Brown, Bond Brown, Bond
White, Bond Black, Plymouth Rock or Aust-
ralorp (27%) (Singh et al., 2015). While com-
mercial brown laying hens with a European
genetic background for intensive in-house
cage production are most commonly used,
those hens were genetically selected to fo-
cus predominantly on productivity and im-
proved feed conversion ratio since being
imported. Other characteristics, such as so-
cial, feeding, foraging, or ranging behavior
did not receive as much attention. Further-
more, current feed recommendations were
developed based on housing in a climate
controlled environment with limited hen
movement. These circumstances may con-
tribute to the fact that average hen body
weight /ock obtained on 15 free-range
layer farms all over Australia ranged from
1.42 kg-2.1 kg and uniformity of the ock
ranged from 83-96% (Singh et al., 2015).
26
LOHMANN Information | Vol. 49 (2), October 2015
Challenges to the Australi-
an egg industry
New South Wales (NSW) and the Australi-
an Capital Territory (ACT ) have 33% of the
national layer ocks, whereas Queensland
(QLD), Victoria (VIC), South Australia (SA)/
the Northern Territory (NT), Western Aus-
tralia (WA), and Tasmania (TAS) account
for 26%, 25%, 10%, 5%, and 1%, respec-
tively (AECL, 2014). The large geographic
distribution of egg producers is reected
by highly diverse climatic challenges. The
nationwide survey recently undertaken
including 41 free-range layer farmers indi-
cated that heat stress is considered a ma-
jor cause of mortality (37%) (Ruhnke et al.,
2015a). Overall, 45% free-range egg pro-
ducers reported they do not have any en-
vironmental control in their layer housing
systems (gure 1). Australian egg produ-
cers are generally exposed to extreme
weather conditions. According to the re-
sults obtained from the free-range survey,
16% of respondents reported experienci-
ng average temperatures of >40⁰C, 19% of
respondents reported temperatures of 30-
40 ⁰C, and 64 % of farmers frequently expe-
rience <0-10°C on the range (Singh et al.,
2015). Furthermore, Australian farmers are
frequently exposed to extreme droughts,
heat waves, and bushres. The latest oo-
ding was observed in March 2015 in the
east coast area of NSW. This ooding resul-
ted in a state-wide decline in egg produc-
tion. While farmers and hens had to rely on
autonomous power sources and helicop-
ter feed delivery for days, signicant bird
losses including pullets occurred.
A more severe impact on national egg
production was experienced in late 2013,
when High Pathogenic Avian Inuenza
(HPAI) was detected in two laying farms
in NSW. Most likely introduced by wild
birds and then spread by a feed delive-
ry truck, the subsequent culling of hens
and secondary eects on the egg market
resulted in a nation-wide loss of produc-
tion of 4%. Low Pathogen Avian Inuen-
za (LPAI) detections and responses were
noted frequently with around 80% of the
outbreaks happening since 2007. Additi-
onally, there have been four AI incidents
requiring national level responses since
2012. While two of those were LPAI de-
tections aecting commercial duck farms,
the other two were major HPAI outbreaks
in commercial layer farms in November
2012 and October 2013. The fact, that
the Avian Inuenza was introduced into a
free-range layer farm highlights the need
for strict biosecurity barriers. All poultry
farms have to comply with the “National
Farm Biosecurity Technical Manual for Egg
production” and should comply with the
“Code of Practice for Biosecurity in the Egg
Industry” (Grimes and Jackson, 2015; Scott,
2015). Furthermore, the national biosecuri-
ty strategy including poultry as one of the
14 sectoral strategies was initiated by Ani-
mal Health Australia, a peak industry body
that oversees the national system of biose-
curity and animal health-related matters.
The Avian Inuenza generic surveillance
procedure is under continuous review
and includes detailed information about
the monitoring and sampling procedures.
Current research into the surveillance of
Avian Inuenza is conducted by the Ru-
ral Industries Research and Development
Corporation, the University of Sydney,
Charles Sturt University, and several other
research institutes.
However, despite the fact that feed and
open water sources are important risk
factors for the transmission of Avian Inu-
enza, on-range feeding is a common feed
strategy performed by up to 47.5% of free-
range egg producers (gure 2, Feare, 2010;
Ruhnke et al., 2015b). Feed and water on
the range frequently attract wild birds
and rodents, which are potential vectors
for diseases. Recent data suggest the pre-
sence of endemic LPAI H5 and H7 in Aus-
tralian wild birds, which have potential to
be introduced to commercial poultry and
mutate into HPAI (Grillo, 2015). With 72%
of layer farmers reporting that >75% of
the ock spend the majority of their time
in the outdoors, contact to wild birds can
be considered as a major biosecurity risk
(Singh, 2015).
Figure 1: Heat stress is considered as one of the major challenges Australians commercial
laying hens are facing. In a recent survey, 45% of free-range farmers indicated not to have
any environmental control in their layer housing system available. Sophisticated sheds are
considered to enhance hen welfare in inclement weather conditions.
Vol. 49 (2), October 2015 | LOHMANN Information
27
Grass impaction
Range usage can also frequently be as-
sociated with intestinal grass impaction
(Ruhnke et al., 2015c). Fresh pasture cover
and availability of fodder on the range is
a requirement mentioned in most accredi-
tation guidelines (FREPA, 2015; ACO, 2013;
CSIRO, 2002). For example, Australian Cer-
tied Organic stipulates that the range for
organic certied hens shall include edible
forage at all times (ACO, 2013). With the re-
cent free-range survey indicating that 43%
of free range farmers rotated the range
usage, and 53% of free-range farmers used
mobile caravan units, 74.4% of all farmers
reported that they were able to maintain
persistent vegetation and the range area
was never stripped bare (gure 3).
While this situation may be benecial for
reducing environmental impact and pa-
rasite burden, exposing hens which were
genetically selected for intensive in-house
cage production to a lush green pasture
remains a challenge in many ways. For
example, range usage lowered laying per-
formance and increased mortality compa-
red to layers housed in cages (Glatz et al.,
2005). The quality and amount of pasture
intake may vary signicantly among indivi-
dual birds due to ock behavior and range
design (Hegelund et al., 2005; Walker and
Gordon, 2003). On some occasions, the
curiosity of the hens in combination with
the ability of feed selection may result in
overconsumption of pasture (gure 4).
In fact, some birds are severely aected
in their expected formulated feed intake
(Ruhnke et al, 2015c). The nutritional value
of pasture is minor. Research has shown
that birds given access to pasture may, in
part, compensate for small deciencies in
methionine through pasture access (Mo-
ritz et al., 2005). However, the predomi-
nant polymer of grass is cellulose, which
contributes 48% to the total crude bre
fraction (Bach-Knudsen, 1997). Chickens
have a very limited ability to access bre
as a nutrient source (Choct et al., 1996;
Walker & Gordon, 2003). Depending on
the vegetation status of the grass, the
non-starch polysaccharide (NSP) content
varies between 37-43% and laying hens
do not produce endogenous enzymes
that can degrade NSPs (Bach-Knutsen,
1997). Constant access to pasture can re-
sult in excessive fodder intake, reducing
the intake of a balanced feed, leading to
undernourishment in energy and essen-
tial nutrients such as amino acids (Ruhnke
et al., 2015c). Consequently malnutrition
occurs, resulting in a severe loss of body
condition. In sub-clinical cases, aected
birds exhibit reduced performance and
in severe cases, death. A recent free-range
survey undertaken in Australia indicated
that grass impaction is considered to be a
mortality concern on up to 21% of farms
surveyed (Ruhnke et al., 2015a, Singh et al.,
2015). Nutrient requirements of a standard
brown laying hen focus on 100-120 g feed
Figure 2: Feed on the range is one method, to improve and maintain the body weight condi-
tion of the hens. However, the risk of attracting wild fowl and introduction of exotic diseases
such as Avian Inuenza cannot be overemphasized.
Figure 3: Mobile sheds that can be integrated into the existing farm infrastructure are com-
monly seen in Australia. Mobile sheds are considered to reduce the environmental impact of
poultry farming and the likelihood of parasite infection. Up to 2,500 hens can be housed per
shed. Features may include self-assembling fences, GPS oriented self-moving caravans, and
automated egg belts.
28
LOHMANN Information | Vol. 49 (2), October 2015
intake/hen/day. Those estimations do not
take into account extra energy required for
free-range birds due to temperature main-
tenance and additional physical activities.
Furthermore, examining crop contents of
dead birds that were severely aected by
grass impaction led to an estimated grass
consumption of up to 60 g grass/day (fresh
matter) (Ruhnke et al., 2015c). Others have
estimated that the average forage con-
sumption of free-range birds is about 30-
40 g dry matter/hen/day, which severely
aected the intake of commercially formu-
lated feed, but did not aect productivity
(Singh and Cowieson, 2013). In order to mi-
nimise the intake of excessive bre materi-
als such as long grass, range management
such as mowing or grazing with cattle or
sheep should be considered. Anecdotal
evidence provided by farmers suggests
that the application of organic acids, such
as apple cider vinegar in the drinking wa-
ter may be of benet (Ruhnke et al., 2015c).
Research investigating several solutions in
order to overcome the challenges associ-
ated with excessive bre intake and grass
impaction is currently being conducted by
the University of Sydney and the University
of New England, Australia.
Nutritional management
Despite the fact that grass intake can inter-
fere with the consumption of a well-balan-
ced diet, the individual hen faces further
nutritional challenges based on individual
ranging behaviour. Free-range laying hens
spend up to 75% of their day in the out-
doors (Keeling et al., 1988). In commercial
ocks, the range may be used by 5-95% of
the hens (Bubier and Bradshaw, 1998; He-
gelund et al., 2005; Hinch and Lee, 2014).
A previous study revealed that, when
housed in xed sheds, up to 10% of layers
never leave the hen house, while others
spend a variable time on the range (Hinch
and Lee, 2014). Hence, the freedom of
choice results in the development of seve-
ral sub-populations within one ock. Hens
on the range spend not only less time
close to their feeders and are less likely to
obtain enough formulated feed to satisfy
their nutrient requirements; they will also
incur higher energy loss due to increased
physical activity and maintenance of their
body temperature. The urgent need for
alternative feeding strategies is reected
by the wide application of highly diverse
feeding approaches in practice. Details of
results obtained from the free-range sur-
vey mentioned earlier regarding the feed
source and the feeding strategy are pre-
sented in tables 1, 2, and 3 (Ruhnke et al.,
2015b, Singh et al., 2015). Additional feed
supplements included shell grit (43%), li-
mestone (40%), hay (29%), silage (9%), and
others, including vegetables, pasture, in-
sects, and harvested grass (37%) (Ruhnke
et al., 2015b, Singh et al., 2015). Hens were
fed ad libitum in 78% of cases. The fact
that 50% of Australian free-range farmers
oer feed on the range and contribute
to the risk of the biosecurity status of this
industry was already mentioned above.
However, current feed recommendations
do not always meet the nutrient require-
ments for the majority of free-range hens.
One standard formulation or feeding sys-
tem ignores not only the dierent needs
of individual hens, but results in an econo-
mic waste of feed material. With feed costs
contributing more than 50% of the varia-
ble costs of free-range egg production,
new approaches of feeding management
are highly relevant. The current inadequa-
te feeding practice may also contribute to
the lower performance and higher morta-
lity seen on free-range farms (Glatz et al.,
2005). Investigating nutritional solutions
for management of free-range laying hens
Table 2. The type of feeding used for Aus-
tralian free-range laying hens (%), n = 40
(Ruhnke et al., 2015b)
Complete diet
80.0
Choice feeding 7.5
Combined feeding 12.5
Table 3. The structure of feed oered to Aus-
tralian free-range laying hens, n = 40 (Ruhn-
ke et al., 2015b)
Mash
30.0
Pellet 27.5
Combined feeding 25.0
Coarse ground 17.5
Fine ground 15.0
Table 1. Feed sources for free-range laying
hens (%), n = 40 (Ruhnke et al., 2015b)
Milling facility
62.5
Own production 22.5
Milling facility and own production 5.0
Other (national feed company) 10.0
Grass impaction 21.0
Malnutrition 5.0
Figure 4. Grass impaction can be observed
frequently and may be one of the major
causes for malnutrition and death. The
picture shows the gizzard content of a hen
with constant access to fresh pasture. The
availability of edible fodder is warranted by
several major accreditation organisations.
(Courtesy to Bob Swick, University of New
England).
Vol. 49 (2), October 2015 | LOHMANN Information
29
is a priority of the Poultry Cooperative Re-
search Centre, and the Australian Egg Cor-
poration Ltd, who currently fund research
in this area.
Parasitism
The freedom of movement and expressi-
on of natural behaviour increase the risk
of infection with several parasites, as hens
are in contact with excreta allowing intes-
tinal parasites to complete their lifecycle.
Consequently the biosecurity in these
production systems seems to be fairly
poor. However, loose husbandry facilities
such as free-range facilities are conside-
red the housing system of the future in
Australia and other developed countries.
Consequently it is the responsibility of the
industry to investigate the impacts, eects
and constraints of free-range production
systems in order to support the manage-
ment of these alternative production sys-
tems. While mobile sheds are frequently
used, rotational ranges are commonly
implemented, and low stocking densities
with up to 350 hens/ha can be observed,
the prevalence for parasite burden may be
low. However, the last investigation about
the prevalence of intestinal parasites in
the Australian poultry was conducted in
1942 (Broadbent, 1942). When questio-
ning free-range egg producers in Aust-
ralia about their parasite monitoring and
control, 58.6% of farmers noticed exter-
nal and/or internal parasites in their ock
(Singh et al., 2015). However, subsequent
investigations revealed that many farmers
never or rarely checked for parasite infes-
tation. The survey also revealed that 20%
of farmers are unsatised or completely
unsatised with the options available for
preventing and treating parasites. Survey
responses also revealed that some of the
parasite control information available to
free-range producers is speculative, sub-
jective and incomplete. Excreta sampling
on farms provided evidence that Ascaris
galli may be the most prevalent parasitic
infection in the Australian free-range egg
industry, which is in general agreement
with ndings in free-range enterprises
in other countries (Jansson et al., 2010;
Kaufmann, 2011; Sherwin et al., 2013; Ya-
zwinski et al., 2013). Parasitic infections in
livestock are costly, due to expenses for
medical treatment, secondary infections
and other direct or indirect losses caused
by reduced performance and/or death
of the hen. The direct impact of parasites
such as Ascaris galli on the economy of
the Australian egg production remains
unknown. While the total eradication of
parasites in a free-range environment is
unfeasible, the threshold to which level
such parasites can be accepted has not
been determined to date. Since only eci-
ent monitoring of the parasite load enab-
les farmers and farm managers to control
the parasite infections, there is a need for
developing accurate and practical test
measurements. Research in this area is
currently performed by CSIRO in collabo-
ration with the University of New England.
The applied approach aims to provide free
range producers with tools that will allow
for eective parasite monitoring, aimed at
increased compliance and reducing the
likelihood of therapeutic drug resistance.
Chemicals, anthelmintics and pesticides
are registered in Australia for the control
of internal or external parasites in birds.
Currently, only levamisole is registered for
use to control nematode parasite in com-
mercial layer ocks in Australia. Other me-
dication such as piperazine is registered
for some other classes of poultry such as
young birds and breeder ocks. Drug re-
sistance of anthelmintics is widespread in
many regions of the world. In Australia, re-
sistance will likely evolve against the only
registered layer product (levamisole) if its
use is widespread and poorly controlled.
Currently, there is no scientic data availa-
ble about the prevalence or parasites and
the use of anthelmintics, as well as the
drug resistance.
Major causes of mortality
and cannibalism
Free range laying farmers attributed their
losses to a wide variety of causes (table
4) (Ruhnke et al., 2015a). Maremma dogs
and Alpacas are frequently placed with
the ock in order to protect the hens from
predators (gure 5). Usually, a couple of
guard animals are introduced to the ock
early on, and accompany them for the rest
of their life. When asked why they have
switched to free-range egg production,
the following reasons were given: bird
welfare reasons (64%), consumer demand
(60%) and to produce a better quality pro-
duct (53%) (Singh et al., 2015: Ruhnke et
al., 201
5a). The focus on hen welfare is re-
ected in concern about feather pecking
and cannibalism and the wide variety of
hen treatment in respect to beak trimming.
Plumage scoring obtained on 15 free-ran-
ge farms revealed that the majority of birds
are aected by severe feather pecking
and/or cannibalism (Singh et al., 2015). This
observation supports research conducted
in 2008, where cannibalism and vent pe-
cking were major causes of mortality in all
Australian states (Nagle et al., 2008).
Based on information from the recent free-
range survey, 50% of the free range farms
Table 4. Causes for mortality in free-range
egg enterprises (%), n = 30 (Ruhnke et al.,
2015a). Multiple reasons for death could be
named by farmers.
Predators
42.0
Heat stress 37.0
Cannibalism 37.0
Diseases 21.0
Grass impaction 21.0
Malnutrition 5.0
30
LOHMANN Information | Vol. 49 (2), October 2015
did not beak-trim their hens (Singh et al.,
2015). Both the Model Code of Practice
and the FREPA standards support minimal
beak trimming by competent persons
qualied under the national competency
standards (CSIRO, 2011; FREPA, 2015).
Therefore, the practice of infrared trim-
ming at day one and additional hot blade
trimming later in life is common in Austra-
lian laying hens and it is not expected to
be regulated in the near future. An increa-
sed activity of animal welfare groups is ex-
pected but their impact on regulations is
unknown. However, organisations such as
the Australian Certied Organic do not al-
low for beak-trimming, nor do they permit
routine vaccination (ACO, 2013). Therefore,
research of practical innovations to reduce
the occurrence of aggression, severe fea-
ther pecking, and cannibalism in free-ran-
ge laying hens is warranted. Currently, sci-
entic evidence to establish best practice
in free-range systems, including the use of
pecking stones, range cover, and stocking
density that may optimise welfare condi-
tions is under investigation.
Summary and conclusions
Free-range egg production pushed by the
supermarkets is reshaping the Australian
egg industry. While the country is charac-
terised by its deregulated industry stan-
dards, a broad variety of housing systems
and management actions exist. Some of
the key characteristics include family ope-
rated farms, the use of mobile sheds and
farming focus on a low environmental
impact by maintenance of pasture cover
on the range. A nation-wide survey identi-
ed key characteristics, current challenges
and research priorities, such as biosecurity,
malnutrition, parasitism, severe feather pe-
cking and cannibalism. Applied research is
highly warranted and currently conducted
by intensive collaboration of various re-
search organisations and interdisciplinary
research teams. Improving the health and
welfare of free-range laying hens, reected
by optimised egg production, is of highest
priority to the Australian egg industry.
Acknowledgement
The author thank the Australian Egg Cor-
poration Limited for providing statistical
information on farm demographics, and
Bede Burke, Chair of The NSW Farmers
Association as well as Mingan Choct, CEO
of the Poultry Cooperative Research Cen-
tre for constructive feedback. Many of
the statistics quoted come from project
2.9.2. funded by the Poultry CRC, establis-
hed and supported under the Australian
Government’s Cooperative Research Cen-
tres Program.
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... In the last two decades, egg production in many developed countries has shifted from cage to barn and free-range systems in response to consumer demand (Kaufmann et al., 2011;Permin et al., 1999;Ruhnke, 2015). In these systems the hens have access to parasite eggs shed in their excreta, thus facilitating the nematode lifecycle and resulting in the re-emergence of helminth infections as a concern (Grafl et al., 2017;Kaufmann et al., 2011;Shifaw et al., 2021a;Wuthijaree et al., 2017). ...
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... These products have been used for more than half a century with no recent appraisal of their efficacy status. While both of these products have a nil egg withholding period at recommend dosage regimens in Australia, LEV is widely used in commercial layer flocks whereas piperazine is used mainly in young birds and breeder flocks (Ruhnke, 2015). Two benzimidazole (BZD) compounds, fenbendazole (FBZ) and mebendazole, are also commonly used by the industry on an off-label prescription basis with efficacies that have not been reported. ...
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Until recently, levamisole (LEV) and piperazine (PIP) were the only registered chemicals to treat nematode infections in chickens in Australia with no published appraisal of their efficacy status since registration. In 2020, Flubendazole (FLBZ) was registered while Fenbendazole (FBZ) has also been used off-label. The aim of this study was to investigate the efficacy of these anthelmintics against nematode isolates sourced from 5 different free-range layer chicken flocks. A series of controlled experiments were conducted in a total of 529 chickens experimentally (300), or naturally (229) infected with Ascaridia galli, Hetarakis gallinarum and Capillaria spp. Chickens received label-recommended doses of LEV (28 mg/kg), PIP (100 mg/kg) or LEV-PIP coadministered at their full individual doses as a single oral drench or in group drinking water at recommended concentrations of 0.8 mg/ml or 2.5 mg/ml over eight hours for 1 and 2 days respectively, FLBZ (30 ppm or 60 ppm) in the feed over 7 days, and FBZ (Panacur 25® Sheep drench) at two doses rates (10 mg/kg as a single oral drench or 5mg/kg as 0.023 mg/ml in drinking water over eight hours for 5 days). Anthelmintic efficacies were estimated by both worm count reduction (WCR %) and excreta egg count reduction (EECR %) following WAAVP guidelines. Based on a standard cut-off value (≥90%), LEV, LEV-PIP, FLBZ and FBZ attained the desired efficacy against nematode isolates of different flock origin but PIP exhibited a poor efficacy against immature A. galli (61-85%), all stages of H. gallinarum (42-77%) and Capillaria spp (25-44%). An overall lower efficacy was observed when the drugs were administered to groups in drinking water. In conclusion, our results show no evidence of resistance of the nematode isolates to the tested anthelmintics. The PIP results appear related to its spectrum of activity rather than true resistance.
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The present study was undertaken to investigate the prevalence of ascarid infections in Swedish commercial laying hens in 2004 and 2008 following a recent nationwide change to alternative housing systems but before anthelmintics became available. Also, the influence on prevalence of farm and flock characteristics and management was studied in 2004. The results showed that the overall prevalence was significantly higher in 2008 (38%; n = 64/169) compared with 2004 (24%; n = 44/186) (P = 0.001). Ascarid infections were rare in caged flocks, including furnished (enriched) cages, both years (2.4 to 4.3%), and were significantly more common in non-cage systems in both years (16.7 to 48.6% in 2004, and 28.6 to 77.1% in 2008 depending on the housing system). There was no significant difference in prevalence between hens kept on litter indoors and free-range/organic hens. The absence of a hygiene barrier at the entrance of the house or unit increased the risk of infection (P < 0.001), which suggests that parasite eggs were introduced horizontally to the farms. The risk of infection also increased with the age of equipment used in the barn; for example, the risk increased with an odds ratio of 7.5 (95% confidence interval = 2.3 to 25) when comparing equipment 1 year old with equipment ≥7 years old. The results of this study show that ascarid infections may re-emerge following a change to alternative housing. With the impending ban on conventional battery cages in the member states of the European Union, ascarid infections are likely to increase in importance and efficient control options such as hygiene barriers should be implemented on all farms.
Conference Paper
Free range poultry egg and meat production is a rapidly growing sector in Australia. Establishing free range production enterprises that meet retailer and consumer demands remains a challenge for the poultry industry. Furthermore, Australia is characterised by a wide array of climatic and topographic regions, some of which may expose free range birds to conditions that may affect their health status and productivity. In order to evaluate the impact of free range production systems on the needs and challenges of farmers and to identify research priorities, a survey was conducted and distributed via e-mail, flyers, and online platforms. Within three months, 84 farmers responded to the survey, resulting in 56 completed questionnaires and 28 partially completed questionnaires. Of the complete responses, 30 egg farmers (EF) and 26 broiler farmers (BF) each answered 79 questions regarding their farm, range, feed, rearing, production and health status, as well as the environmental impact and their adaption to the free range system.
Article
1. Faecal samples from 19 commercial, 65 week old free-range egg laying flocks were examined to assess the prevalence and number of parasitic nematode eggs. Data were collected to characterise the housing, husbandry, behaviour and welfare of the flocks to examine possible relationships with the egg counts. 2. Eggs of at least one genus of nematode were present in the faeces of all 19 flocks. Heterakis eggs were detected in 17 (89%) flocks, Ascaridia in 16 (84%), Trichostrongylus in 9 (47%), and Syngamus in 6 (32%). Faecal egg counts (FEC) were greatest for Ascaridia and Heterakis. 3. For each nematode genus, there was no significant difference in FEC between organic (N = 9) and non-organic (N = 10) flocks, or between static (N = 8) and mobile (N = 11) flocks. 4. FEC were correlated with a range of housing, husbandry and management practices which varied between the nematode genus and included depth of the litter, percentage of hens using the range, and number of dead hens. Statistical analysis indicated relationships with FEC that included light intensity above the feeder, indoor and outdoor stocking density, fearfulness in the shed and on the range, distance to the nearest shelter, and swollen toes. 5. None of the FEC for any of the genera was correlated with weekly egg production or cumulative mortality. 6. Although nematode FEC were highly prevalent among the flocks, the overall lack of relation to other welfare and production measures suggests that these infections were not severe.
Article
Small scale operations in which poultry forage freely around farms is widespread on rural properties. In Australia grain farmers, market gardeners and graziers integrate poultry into their farming system. In this system, birds are unrestricted in their movements except that they are usually locked in sheds at night for protection from predators. Consumers pay a premium for eggs and chicken meat on the grounds of enhanced welfare of birds in this system. Eggs are perceived as having superior taste and nutritional properties. The purpose of this experiment was to determine the impact of poultry integrated into a pasture and crop rotation system. The pasture availability, insects, weeds and soil fertility were measured before and after grazing by poultry. Sheep were used as a comparison in the experiment. Laying hens stocked at 110/ha (compared to sheep-stocking density 12/ha) were allowed to forage a medic pasture in a crop and pasture rotation system during summer in a Mediterranean environment. The egg production of layers (Hyline Brown) in the free-range system was lower than the standard performance expected in a cage system. Rate of lay from 18-40 weeks was 79% vs 93% (cage standard). The mortality of free-range birds was higher than the cage standard (9.1 vs 1.2%). The reduction of performance of birds relative to the standard was expected considering the heat wave conditions experienced during the experiment. Sheep were very effective in grazing the wire seed, which contaminated the paddocks whereas poultry avoided this weed. In contrast, the number of unidentified weeds in the sheep paddocks was greater than the poultry paddock. This raises the possibility that sheep and poultry could be grazed together in some circumstances, to provide a method for reducing weed build up. Sheep could be used to graze out weeds they prefer and poultry to consume weed seeds and insects that sheep avoid. Soil fertility was not different between the sheep and poultry paddocks. The yield of wheat from poultry paddocks in the subsequent crop was 1.25 tonne/ha versus 1.43 tonnes/ha from sheep paddocks.