Montalcini, C. M., Petelle, M. B., Toscano, M. J. 2023. Commercial hatchery practices have long-lasting effects on laying hens’ spatial behaviour and health. PLOS ONE 18(12), e0295560.

The commercial hatchery process is globally standardized and exposes billions of day-old layer chicks to stress every year. By alleviating this early stress, on-farm hatching is thought to improve animal welfare, yet little is known about its effects throughout production. This study compared welfare indicators and spatial behaviours during the laying period of hens hatched in an on-farm environment (OFH) to those hatched in a commercial hatchery and transferred at one day-old to a rearing barn (STAN). In particular, we assessed how OFH and TRAN hens differed in space-use and movement behaviours following the transfer to the laying barn at 17 weeks of age, a similar stressor encountered by STAN hens early in life, and determined whether effects aligned more with the ’silver-spoon’ or ’environmental matching’ hypothesis. We found that for the first three months post-transfer into the laying barn, OFH hens, on average, transitioned less between the aviary’s tiers and spent less time on the littered floor. Because OFH hens became behaviourally more similar to STAN hens over time, these results suggest that OFH hens required a prolonged period to establish their daily behavioural patterns. Furthermore, OFH hens had more severe keel bone fractures throughout the laying period but similar feather damage and body mass to STAN hens. No differences were found in hen mortality or the number of eggs per live hen. These findings support the environmental matching hypothesis and suggest that early-life stressors may have prepared hens for later-life stressors, underscoring the importance of both early-life and adult environments in enhancing animal welfare throughout production.

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