Impacting the Early Life of a Laying Hen

3 Ways Early Life Experiences Help Prepare Hens for Adulthood

If you’ve ever had the pleasure of being a dog parent you know how important early life experiences are for your puppy and how much they can impact their behavior later in life. For example, we’ve all been told that positive social interactions for young puppies helps them build the social skills they’ll need as adults, giving them confidence to interact with other dogs while on walks, at the dog park, and if you ever want to bring a second puppy home.

But what about early life experiences for farm animals like laying hens?

Research has shown that early exposure to environments with certain features – think perches, bedding material for scratching, foraging, and dustbathing, and extra space – help to better prepare hens for life in adulthood in a non-cage environment (don’t forget, all types of cages are prohibited under our Standards for all certification levels!).

At G.A.P., not only do we have Standards for laying hens, but we also have Standards for pullets. We are one of the only animal welfare certifications that have a full set of Standards for pullets.

What’s a pullet, you ask?

Pullets are young female chickens that have not yet laid an egg (approximately 1-18 weeks of age). Pullets have outgrown their baby chick phase and their adult feathers have started coming in. Being immature, pullets are smaller and weigh less than adult laying hens and their combs and wattles are not as big or red in color yet. Usually pullets are housed at one farm and then transferred to another specialized farm when they are ready to start laying eggs.

So why do we have Standards for pullets then? Keep reading for three ways G.A.P. Standards can prepare pullets for adulthood:

1: Build Stronger Bones and Muscles

Providing more opportunities for pullets to move around and exercise improves bone and muscle quality characteristics later in life. Research has shown that rearing pullets in non-cage systems increase wing and breast muscle development and improves bone density when compared to pullets reared in conventional cages that offer limited access for exercise and activity.

Like our Laying Hen Standards, our Pullet Standards also prohibit the use of cages to house birds. Housing pullets in non-cage systems provides them the opportunity for increased exercise and activity, like walking, running, wing flapping, jumping, foraging, and dustbathing – activities that may help to build and develop bones and muscles that will benefit them during rearing, but also later in life.

2: Learn How to Navigate 3D Spaces

G.A.P.’s Pullet Standards require perches to be provided throughout the rearing period. This not only gives pullets somewhere to roost at night (a natural and highly motivated behavior), but also ensures that pullets learn how to use vertical spaces. Research has shown that birds reared without access raised platforms or perches are slower to learn how to use them later in life.

In addition, G.A.P. requires that pullets are reared in a similar environment to the one they are to be housed in when they are adults. Therefore, if multiple tiers or levels are used in the laying barn, there should be multiple tiers or levels offered in the pullet barn too. By keeping the two environments similar, stress at transfer is reduced and it ensures that the birds already know how to access all the different areas of their housing environment when they arrive at the laying barn.

3: Reduce Risk of Unwanted Behaviors

You might be wondering what kind of unwanted behavior a hen could possibly do! Hens are highly motivated to forage – by this we mean scratching and pecking at the ground. In natural settings, this is how hens would find their food sources, eating bugs and vegetation they find in their environment. For caged hens, the access to material for foraging, like wood shavings, is extremely limited. This lack of stimulation can result in a redirection of foraging-like behaviors on to the feathers of their fellow hens. In the industry and scientific literature, this is known as feather pecking. Severe feather pecking is painful for the victim and can result in large bald patches and even damage to the skin.

G.A.P.’s pullet Standards require that chicks and pullets are provided with material for foraging from day 1 – and that it’s kept dry and usable (not wet and clumpy). This helps reduce the likelihood of feather pecking developing and improves welfare of the flock. We also highly recommend providing enrichments for pullets as extra items can help reduce the development of feather pecking even more so!

At G.A.P., we try to ask ourselves “why?” with every decision we make. This helps our standard-setting process stay thoughtful and ensures that every requirement has a purpose. G.A.P.’s approach to farm animal welfare is always focused on the animal first. That’s why our standards cover the lifecycle of the animal, not just adulthood. We hope this information has helped answer some of your own “why?” questions about pullets and laying hens.

For more information, check out our species-specific standards pages here and follow us on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter to stay up-to-date!

Krysta Morrissey

Author Krysta Morrissey

SENIOR FARM ANIMAL WELFARE SPECIALIST, GLOBAL ANIMAL PARTNERSHIP. Krysta's childhood dreams of becoming a large animal vet influenced her decision to study animal biology at the University of Guelph in Canada. While there, she found her love for farm animal welfare science and shifted gears to continue her education in poultry, mainly chicken, behavior and welfare. Her Master’s and PhD degrees focused on hunger mechanisms of broiler breeders and hens, and how those can be influenced in order to reduce feather pecking and cannibalism behaviors.

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