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Layers behaviour analysis, an essential concept in the latest livestock farming systems Logo Feedia

Because animals are at the core of our metiers, paying close attention to their behaviour is a key driver of optimised production. Ethology, which is the study of animal behaviour, helps better understand favourable natural behaviours and those to avoid in order to ensure their well-being and good results.
In the “consumption eggs” sector, cage-free systems are becoming widespread. On these types of farms, layers express a wider range of behaviours (stretching, dust baths, exploration, etc.) that breeders and other farm-related professionals must learn to understand.

The various pecking behaviours

We have observed a hierarchy in farm-raised hens similar to how they behave in the wild. The order of access to resources (feed, water, enrichments, etc.) therefore depends on this social contact between individual animals. This is reflected in minor pecking from the dominant birds on the backs and heads of the submissive ones.

Additionally, hens have more space to express their natural environment exploration behaviour, with the primary aim of finding food. We can thus see them peck at all types of materials such as litter, equipment, feed, walls, etc.

However, at times, the ideal circumstances for expressing these behaviours are not met and can result in “feather pecking” : hens will pull out the feathers of others. If bleeding occurs, it can lead to cannibalism as blood is appetising to them. Remember, hens are omnivores in the wild. Clearly, as this type of behaviour deteriorates the animals’ well-being and production results, we aim to avoid it through preventive methods.


The cause of feather pecking is multifactorial.  In other words, several factors can contribute to the animals’ frustration and eventually result in this disorder. There is no single specific triggering factor. We observe factors such as farm conditions (pullets and layers), transitioning between farms, social learning, building atmosphere, type of equipment used, genetics, water and feed quality, etc.

Our recommendations :

  • Make sure the building’s atmosphere (T°, RH, CO2, NH3, etc.) complies with technical guidelines.
  • Ensure a uniform distribution of light in the building, free of spots of light. 
  • Do not stimulate the chicks too early (at 1,250 g for white breeds (or 1,350 g for red breeds)  with 80% homogeneity).
  • Assess the feathering on pullets upon arrival: a lack of uniformity means the flock is at a higher risk.
  • Enrichments are beneficial but should be diversified often to keep birds interested in them. Feed enrichments are even better, such as pecking blocks or alfalfa bales.
  • Accustomed the layers to emptying feeders once a day and avoid changing feed composition and presentation. We can also enrich feed with fibres as this accentuates the animals’ satiety, and they will be therefore less inclined to continually explore their environment.

Ground laying

In alternative livestock systems, nests are provided for hens to lay eggs, which are then sent to a separate biosecurity-compliant building zone for sorting. When hens lay outside of their nests, it is called “ground laying”. This behaviour poses a problem because eggs can break, are more fragile, dirtier and waste time for breeders who must collect them.

For a given layer, the sequence of behaviours leading up to laying is nearly always the same: during this period of approximately 30 minutes, she will search for a place to lay. Less than optimal conditions may cause the hen to be unsatisfied with the nest and she will thus adopt a bad habit of laying elsewhere. However, if breeders are attentive to certain factors, the hen can be trained to lay in the desired spot.

Ground laying

Our recommendations:

  • Ensure a uniform distribution of light in the building, especially in darker areas and corners. 
  • Stimulate the chicks at the right moment (at 1,250 g for white breeds (or 1,350 g for red breeds)  with 80% homogeneity). 
  • Install dim light (10 lux) in nests to attract the first hens that lay in the morning.
  • Create attractive nests:
    - Free of residual odours from building clean-up.
    - Correctly heated nests, without air currents.
    - If possible, add a substrate to the nests suited to the expression of pre-laying behaviour. Artificial grass or mats with small rubber pins are good compromises between the birds’ needs and those of the breeders.
    - Do not place perches too close to the nest entries because perched birds block the access to nests.
  • Empty the feeders 1x/day, preferably during the second half of the morning to discourage hens from coming to eat and thus laying eggs on the floor.
  • Check the water supply for cut-offs, insufficient pressure, quality, etc.

Changes in poultry production methods that meet societal expectations require us to rethink certain practices in order to avoid these problematic behaviours. Thanks to an expertise in poultry behaviour and farming techniques in general, our Feedia experts can help you adapt your husbandry methods for more peace of mind at work. Contact us now!

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