Actually, the question should be “What is poultry welfare to YOU?”. As I’ve mentioned before, I am doing a Master’s degree in animal welfare. It has long been an interest of mine, and the circumstances resulted in me doing the degree part-time, while I am still doing my vet job.
Today, in my “Assessing Animal Welfare” course, a discussion evolved on defining animal welfare (makes sense to figure out what you are assessing before you start). Basically, the gurus say there are 3 broad components of animal welfare – mental states (referred to as feelings or affective states), health (the absence of pain and illness), and ability to live naturally. The great thing is that, almost universally, EVERYONE agrees on benefits and detriments for animals. Nobody will argue that it is good for chickens to be sick, or hungry or in pain; and everyone will agree that it is good for hens to be able to perform natural behaviours like nesting, perching and dust-bathing. It should be simple to go forward from this point. Unfortunately, very few changes in hen care result in improvements in all 3 aspects. Often, strategies that improve the hens’ health restrict the diversity in the environment, resulting in boredom. More freedom of movement and behaviour almost inevitably result in more injuries and pain.
The problems, arguments, plebiscites, lawsuits and angst result from the different emphasis people put on different aspects of welfare. If chickens are allowed to wander outside, they will get more disease, and suffer more deaths and injuries from predators. Nobody will argue this point. What happens is that people argue about whether it is worth it. (Even if, sometimes, the combatants don’t even realize that this is the discussion they are having.) “Hens have to have access to the outside, to feel sunshine on her face”, and “The mortality and disease rates of range housing of laying hens is unsupportable” are actually just different shades of grey.
I think that the discussions would be a lot more productive and congenial if everyone involved in the debate would realize that we are all actually on the same side. We all want happy chickens living a free, healthy, productive life. The question is: how many days of illness are worth the feel of sunshine on her beak? How heavy a load of bacteria offsets the satisfaction of scratching through the dirt for bugs and grubs? There is no set answer, but everyone has a valid opinion.
The discussion has to continue, and farmers have to continue to evolve to meet the society’s expectations. Just remember, the debate has been going on for thousands of years….Aristotle and Plato discussed animal welfare in ancient Greece. If they couldn’t figure it out, I don’t expect the answer will be very simple or straightforward.
Mike the Chicken Vet