Welfare of meat chickens and meat breeding chickens: guidance

Detailed information about the needs of meat chickens and meat breeding chickens and how to meet these needs in accordance with good practice.

Section 3: Additional recommendations for breeding and grandparent chickens

118. Breeding birds for meat chickens have been selected for a balance of many traits, including those relating to the production of fertilised eggs and those relating to the production of chicken meat.  Consequently, their husbandry requirements are quite different from those of their progeny.  Highly competent stockmanship, a high standard of housing and equipment and good control of the environment are essential.

Breeding Procedures

All meat chickens – including breeding birds and those at hatcheries

Paragraphs 28 and 29 of schedule 1 of the Welfare of Farmed Animals (Scotland) Regulations 2010 state that:

28. (1) Natural or artificial breeding or breeding procedures which cause, or are likely to cause, suffering or injury to any of the animals concerned must not be practised.

(2) Sub-paragraph (1) does not preclude the use of natural or artificial breeding procedures which are likely to cause minimal or momentary suffering or injury or that might necessitate interventions which would not cause lasting injury.

29. No person may keep an animal for farming purposes unless it can reasonably be expected, on the basis of its genotype of phenotype, that it can be kept without detrimental effect on its health or welfare.

119. Birds should come from balanced breeding programmes, promoting and protecting health, welfare and production goals simultaneously.  

120. Identification of birds should be encouraged, to enable future feedback of information within the breeding pyramid and better application of breeding for welfare, based on data from the supply chain.

121. Husbandry measures and practices on the breeding farm should be designed to minimise floor eggs, and heavily soiled eggs should not be sent as hatching eggs.  Littered nests are preferred by breeding females and may reduce the number of floor eggs if litter substrate is placed in a nest, whatever the base type (metal, wood, rubber mat).

122. Surplus chicks and embryos in hatchery waste or resulting from on-farm hatching should be killed humanely by a trained and competent person and in accordance with the specific welfare at the time of killing legislation.

Feed and water

123. The rearing and management of breeding chickens is a careful balance of appropriate feeding and light management in the puberty phase and appropriate management in lay, so that birds achieve an optimal growth and maintain persistency of lay.  

124. In the rearing phase, an appropriate growth curve for the breed should be followed.  During rearing, feed intake should be balanced to avoid birds being fed too much which could lead to excessive weight gain, increases in mortality and seriously compromised health, welfare and production. 

125. However, if feed intake is restricted too much, the birds are likely to experience excessive hunger.  Balancing the control of feed intake, with growth and feed type, is necessary to ensure the optimal transition of the birds into adulthood.

126. With breeder hens and active cockerels in the reproductive phase, feed supply should be continuously adjusted to real production so that the birds thrive and produce well, and do not lose weight.  It is particularly important that the needs of the individual birds should be catered for and the flock carefully monitored by experienced staff with the appropriate skills.

127. Birds must be offered food at least daily throughout the production cycle with the exception of the day of transportation as they travel more comfortably with an empty crop.  Increased feed should be given to breeding birds on the day before travel and water should be made available up to the time of catching.

128. Particular attention should be paid to ensure that all birds get an appropriate quantity of the feed made available to avoid undue competition.  Feeding equipment should be capable of delivering small quantities rapidly, accurately and evenly to all birds in the house and the amount of trough space allocated should allow adequate access to feed for all birds intended to be fed.  Feed should have good physical qualities e.g. hard pellets.  Scatter feeding reduces displacement behaviours and increases foraging.  If feed is scattered, it should be distributed over a sufficient area to allow access for all birds to be fed.

129. In addition to routine daily checks, the body weight and condition of the birds should be systematically monitored on a weekly basis.  Prompt, appropriate adjustments should be made to feed allocation according to what is found.

130. The nutritional quality of breeding chicken feed must be carefully monitored and controlled, especially with regard to micronutrients and protein.  It is advisable to check nutritional content of rations to confirm it contains the right specification especially if any problems arise.  The keeper must be particularly vigilant after changes in feed batches.  

131. During the first 6 weeks of life, feed levels should be adequate to ensure good skeletal development.  The level of feed intake throughout rearing should be managed to achieve a steady daily growth rate and not be less than that recommended in the breeders’ manuals. 

132. Birds whose feed quantity is controlled may show increased drinking and displacement behaviour such as environmental pecking (e.g. pecking at the empty feeder and the wall or ‘spot’ pecking.)  (See also paragraph 135). Higher water intakes can impact negatively on litter quality.  Increasing the fibre content of the feed increases the time taken for birds to consume their food and can reduce their water intake, thereby improving litter condition.  This has no negative impact on subsequent egg production, weight or quality of the breeding birds.

133. It may be necessary to manage the supply of water in relation to the feeding system and programme to reduce excessive drinking and to maintain litter quality.  However, an adequate supply of fresh drinking water must be provided each day.  When access to water is time limited it is vital that there is generous provision of drinkers with adequate flow to enable all birds to drink without undue competition.

134. During lay, cockerels and hens have different nutritional requirements and may be fed differently within the same house. The equipment used to prevent cockerels taking feed intended for hens should be carefully adjusted to ensure that access for hens is maintained and cockerels are not injured.  However, some systems and stages in the flock cycle require both males and females to be fed similar amounts of feed together and so it may be desirable to remove cockerel excluders from female feeding systems.  Breeding birds must not be induced to moult by stopping feed and water.

Aggression, injurious pecking and environmental enrichment

135. The provision of enrichment such as unopened bales of shavings, good quality straw, scattering of bio-secure wholegrain or other enrichment  to encourage normal scratching and pecking behaviour, may help to prevent or reduce injurious and aggressive pecking in the rearing period which adversely affects the welfare of the birds. 

136. To enrich the environment, insoluble grit should be offered (either spread on the litter or supplied in separate containers, in a measured amount) from about 6 weeks of age.  This will also help the gizzard to break down any litter or feathers which may have been consumed and encourage scratching.  Foraging behaviour has the added advantage of improving litter quality.  Suitable perches in the rearing house may provide a form of enrichment to aid the birds in performing another of their natural behaviours.  Perches will also aid the birds’ adaptation from litter to raised, perforated floors when they move to the laying phase.

Beak trimming

Schedule 3, of The Prohibited Procedures on Protected Animals (Exemptions) (Scotland) Regulations 2010 (as amended) deals with beak trimming of poultry.  Those parts relating to meat chickens state that:

(1) Beak trimming of poultry may only be performed to prevent feather pecking and cannibalism and, in relation to laying hens kept on holdings of 350 or more and meat chickens kept on holdings of 500 or more, when the animals are less than 10 days old.

(4) Beak trimming of meat chickens may only be carried out, after consultation with and on the advice of a veterinary surgeon, by qualified staff, and where other measures to prevent feather pecking and cannibalism are exhausted.

137. It is not usually necessary to beak trim female breeding and grandparent chicks routinely.  For male breeding and grandparent chicks, beak trimming may be necessary to prevent injury to other birds from aggressive or injurious pecking.  If so, only the tip of the beak should be removed from these chicks.  This should be done on the advice of a veterinary surgeon, before 10 days of age, preferably at day old using infra-red technology.  Beak trimming of older birds should only be carried out in an emergency when advised by a veterinary surgeon.

Buildings and accommodation

138. As with other meat chickens, meat breeding and grandparent birds should be reared in houses in which temperature, humidity, ventilation rates, light levels and photoperiods are carefully regulated.  A well designed house will incorporate ventilation and heating systems, effective light-proofing and a lighting system providing controllable light levels with uniform distribution. 

139. Ventilation rates, air distribution and house conditions must at all times be adequate to provide sufficient fresh air appropriate for the age of the birds, without draughts.  Air quality, including dust levels and concentrations of carbon monoxide, should be controlled and kept within limits where the welfare of the birds is not negatively affected. 

140. Breeder chickens on controlled feed are more susceptible to low temperatures but less so to high temperatures.  If the temperature is allowed to fall there may be a need to increase feed or provide heaters. 

141. Recommended minimum light intensities and photoperiods for breeding and grandparent birds are as follows, but higher light intensity should preferably be provided during rearing:


Light intensity 

Uninterrupted day length 

Day old

60 lux minimum, reducing to 10 lux by 10 days of age

Minimum of 8 hours 

Up to point of lay

10 lux minimum

Minimum of 8 hours

In lay

20 lux minimum

Increasing from 8 hours to a maximum of 18 hours

142. Light intensity should be measured at bird eye level height.  If aggression or injurious pecking occurs, the lights should be dimmed for a few days and other measures considered to reduce the behaviour.  After the first few days, there should be a set period of at least 6 hours of dark, including at least 4 continuous hours of darkness, in any 24 hour period.

143. Careful attention should be paid to the hen to cockerel ratio (numbers, maturity, weight) to ensure the development of optimal male-female relationships and avoid aggression from females towards immature males, or to protect hens
from the presence of too many mature cockerels in the breeder house.  Where relationship problems occur, consideration could be given to providing barriers
which can reduce stress in females by allowing them to retreat from cockerels.

Stocking density and freedom of movement

144. Stocking density for meat breeding birds should not exceed 25 kg/m2 calculated by dividing the total weight of all the birds (males and females) in the house by total area available to the birds.  In calculating this area, consideration should be given to the space taken up by equipment in the house.

145. Various factors need to be taken into account to promote good welfare when setting and monitoring stocking densities.  The observance of any particular maximum stocking density is important but cannot, by itself, ensure the welfare of the birds.  There is a close relationship between stockmanship, litter management, environmental control and stocking density.  Birds will be maintained in good condition only if the balance is right, and the onus is on the keeper to demonstrate that welfare is not compromised whatever the stocking density.

146. The decision to stock at a particular density should be made on a house basis and should take account of house-specific management factors.

147. Irrespective of the type of system, all meat breeding chickens should have sufficient freedom of movement to be able, without difficulty, to stand normally, turn around, stretch their wings and perform breeding behaviours.


148. As for all meat chickens, litter must be maintained in good condition to avoid possible leg problems, footpad lesions, respiratory and environmental problems.  Particular attention must be paid to maintaining ventilation levels and to air movement patterns to avoid draughts at litter level, as well as the addition of litter as required. 

149. In winter, supplementary heating should be available if needed to maintain the correct temperature in breeder houses and prevent deterioration in air and litter quality resulting in respiratory, leg and foot pad problems. 

Catching, handling and transport

150. When birds are transferred to laying facilities, care should be taken when lifting them out of a crate or when tipping them out of an open-topped container.  Birds should have immediate access to water on arrival, especially where slats are fitted.


Email: Kirsten.Foubister@gov.scot

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