Diary of a Poultry Farmer: Ignore beak trimming at your own peril

Friday August 11 2017

Farmers dispose eggs at a poultry farm in Onstwedde, Netherlands.

Farmers dispose eggs at a poultry farm in Onstwedde, Netherlands after the Dutch Food and Welfare Authority (NVWA) highlighted the contamination of eggs by fipronil, a toxic insecticide outlawed from use in the production of food. In poultry farming, beak trimming is an important function. PHOTO | AFP 

By SUBIRI OBWOGO
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Once beaten, twice shy, so goes the popular saying.

My chicks have just turned seven weeks old, which is a major milestone, but I am not taking any chances considering the losses I incurred last year.

I have already administered the two Gumboro vaccines, the first Newcastle vaccine and just a week ago, the fowl pox vaccine.

I have also ensured they have access to adequate good quality feeds and clean water.

Now, I’m not stopping there. Last week, I took a break from the shots to do something else that many farmers ignore at their peril.

The farm manager sent me this text message, “About 80 per cent of the flock has been cut.” Okay, what he meant was that he had trimmed their beaks.

Now, just to be clear, the word “debeaking” can mislead. It could imply removing the entire beak, which can be deadly.

What he simply did was to remove part of the top and bottom beak of each bird using a special pair of scissors, which is also called beak trimming.

The pair of scissors retails for Sh1,000 in most agrovets and one person is enough to do the task.

As you may recall, sometime last year (Seeds of Gold, August 13, 2016), I recounted a nasty experience on my farm resulting from cannibalism, bullying, feather and vent pecking in the flock.

At that time, about 40 per cent of the flock had been affected. Several hens had severe body injuries and I was losing about three mature birds every week.

For sure, as high as 25 to 30 per cent deaths rates have been reported in flocks affected with this problem.

AVOID ORDINARY PAIR OF SCISSORS

The experts I consulted then were very clear that, “Pecking and other forms of cannibalism are easier to prevent than to treat.”

In addition, they told me that, “To work, prevention of feather-pecking should begin early.” Researchers have recognised that pullets that feather-peck will continue this practice as adults.

Debeaking schedule for kienyeji chicken.

Debeaking schedule for kienyeji chicken.

In fact, I was told that the best time to undertake the procedure is at six weeks. As such, I couldn’t take any chances.

What has always fascinated me is that ‘pecking of feathers’ among chicken flocks is a natural phenomenon designed to maintain hierarchy and establish social order.

Birds peck at the ground and surroundings and at each other to work out where they fit in the flocks’ hierarchy.

Avoid using the ordinary pair of scissors, knife or hot blades as these can cause physical damage and bleeding.

Another thing to note is that excessive beak-trimming can impair beak function. Insufficient trimming results in the beak growing back.

When I sought advice for pecking last year, I was advised that besides trimming the beaks, I needed to look at their diet, parasites, living conditions and housing.

FEED CONTENTS

Now, my feeds contain adequate amounts of carbs, proteins and minerals, so I am not worried about this.

I even tested them and the results were good. I was told that unbalanced diets high in energy, low in fibre and deficient in methionine (a building block of proteins), sodium (salt) and phosphorus, increase craving for blood and feathers.

I have also focused on housing and living conditions like stocking density, perches and pecking incentives.

According to a study by Dutch researchers (Monique Bestman and Jan Paul Wagenaar, 2006), flocks that feather pecked were at a density of 35 chicks per square metre (3.2 chicks per square foot), while flocks that did not feather peck were at only 22 chicks per square metre (two chicks per square foot) during the first four weeks of life.

In addition to ensuring a low stocking density, I have put up perches.

Another thing I have learnt is that sometimes one needs to re-trim if the beaks grow back enough to cause pecking damage.

Birds should be re-trimmed at between eight and 12 weeks of age to avoid this happening. In fact, if the problem occurs later, some non-trimmed adult birds may need trimming.