Beak Trimming or debeaking of Chickens and Beak Clipping in Farming

For the most part, this is still under the welfare radar. Some information on this widely used practice.

Beak trimming, also known as debeaking, is the practise of removing the end of a chicken's beak, to limit the damage chickens can inflict on one another in a factory farm environment. It is widely used, and widely touted as an act of welfare.

On the face of it, it does seem to be: from a flock perspective, feather pecking and cannibalism among birds is certainly a welfare issue. However, when considering it as the method most widely used to control the behaviour, more investigation is certainly needed.

If you ask farmers who practice beak trimming (which I have), they will invariably tell you quite frostily that it's a painless procedure used solely for the benefit of the chickens. Predictable, given their propensity toward it. However it being painless seemed more of an assumption to me, bearing in mind chickens' lack of communicative ability on our terms.

This Might Sting...

Some research has been carried out as to whether debeaking does cause acute pain, and the results have been mixed: most agree it is a painful procedure, and that the discomfort lasts at least a number of weeks. It's a tricky subject to study as it's difficult to identify whether a chicken is in pain or not: one study used the young chicken's heart rate as a measure, whilst noting in the conclusion that the chickens heart may have been running at maximum speed anyway due to its infancy 0.

Others documented feeding habits, and the frequency of normal pecking behaviour after the beak trim. For lack of any better techniques, its hard not to consider these methods potentially inept - one thing is certain: the chicken can't voice its pain, and is definitely a few opposable thumbs short of writing a complaint letter.

The Wrong Question

Aside from this, we can see that the question 'Does beak trimming cause acute pain' actually misses the point, once we consider what we know about a chicken's beak. We know that it's a precision tool packed with mechanoreceptors (nerves that detect pressure), and crucially, nociceptors (nerves designed to signal pain) 1.

So, common sense dictates that the question shouldn't be 'does debeaking cause acute pain', but 'why wouldn't it'?

This is the crux of the matter - keep it in mind. Beak trimming isn't welfare driven - it's production driven. This truth can be applied to other 'welfare'-inspired meddling with the animals that we utilise for dairy and meat (swap 'beak trimming' for 'castration', for instance, in the pig farming industry).

The Problem

Feather pecking and cannibalism within flocks of poultry in a farm setting is the problem. This is not a natural behaviour of chickens, to the extent that modern day chickens are natural - having been domesticated and selectively bred for thousands of years. 2 . Rather, these aggressive behaviours are forced upon them by environmental factors: density of the flock; inability to roam freely; lack of interest in their environment; and artificial selection for a high egg yield.

The Possible Solutions

Welfare being our driving concern, a number of solutions present themselves before debeaking. Reducing flock size and adding interesting toys and features to the birds habitat both work, according to a couple of local egg producers I've talked to. Are humane mechanisms for controlling aggressive behaviour among birds implementable on large farms?

What To Do.

The fault doesn't necessarily lie with the farmers. It's easy for me to voice my concerns over beak trimming, when no real sacrifice is needed on my part. I'm certainly willing to pay more for eggs from chickens whose welfare is a higher priority, but the choice isn't as simple for the farmer: changing his infrastructure and sacrificing production efficiency could very well mean sacrificing his business. The same is true for selective breeding - chickens have been bred solely for egg production efficiency, to the detriment of how amiable they are to each other.

Popularisation of the issue might bring about change, as it has with other poultry welfare problems. Consider the free range issue - Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall have mobilised the public to a level that has forced real change - Sainsbury's now only stocks free range eggs, for instance. It could certainly work again for debeaking, though I have doubts as to whether the issue would be potent enough to hold the public's attention for long enough for any meaningful change to occur. The best change, therefore, might be legislative: a mandatory control on beak trimming in the UK, plus blocking import of the inevitably cheaper beak trimmed eggs from abroad.

The bottom line is that the real cost of a chickens egg, once we start paying for the needed welfare improvements, is higher than what we are paying at the moment. This is a lesson applicable to all foodstuffs from the dairy or meat industry: low costs invariably mean a serious compromise in welfare.

Free Range?

A quick note on this. Admittedly, free range certified eggs constitute a massive welfare improvement upon caged hens. Particularly those with the Lion Mark on them - British Lion Eggs require additional improvements from the standard 'Free Range' criteria, including an increased roaming area, reduced flock sizes, and better indoor conditions.

Sadly though, debeaking doesn't make it onto the naughty list - Free Range doesn't mean trim-free. The RSPCA's Freedom foods welfare code 3 concerning laying hens provides guidelines to minimise the pain inflicted, and encouragingly notes its intention to move away from the practice within 5 years.

Ready Your Wallets...

Kudos to The Soil Association - among their many other exciting and enterprising recommendations for animal farming, they explicitly disallow beak trimming. That may be the most straightforward way of purchasing eggs from non-beak trimmed hens: look out for the Soil Association Logo.

Continuing the theme, eggs from smaller farms are less likely to come from beak trimmed hens. A local farmers market is a great place to start. Keep in mind that it's ok to ask! If you receive a frosty response, chalk it down to the reasons we've discussed above.

I'd dearly like to add to my list of trimming-free egg suppliers, and will do so eagerly when I've more time to research them, or if they are suggested by you. Answers on a postcard!

And here's a plug to The Meatrix - where beak trimming wins a mention. More useful information on factory farming to be found here...

References

  • 0. Australian Journal of Experimental Agriculture 34(4) 443 - 447
  • 1. Gentle, M.J. and Breward, J., 1986. The bill tip organ of the chicken. (Gallus gallus var. domesticus). J.Anat., 145: 79-85.
  • 2. Eriksson J, Larson G, Gunnarsson U, Bed'hom B, Tixier-Boichard M, et al. (2008) Identification of the Yellow Skin Gene Reveals a Hybrid Origin of the Domestic Chicken. PLoS Genet January 23, 2008.
  • 3. RSPCA Freedom Foods

Written by Tom Bates

Neil 1059

12:52 BST, 13th September 2010

I currently have 36 chickens which are housed in a purpose bulit chicken house, and roam free in the summer months. They are locked up at night for protection from predators etc. Based on the content of the article above they are in ideal conditions with regard to roaming, boredom, etc, but several times i have fed them in the morning and found the start of cannibalisation, especially if a moult is in progress. I am an advocate of beak trimming, and whilst i can accept some pain may be evident it is better than the alternatives i have witnessed in the past. I find the dentist painful at times, but i know it is better than the pain of toothache, my choice i know, but poultry dont have the intelligence to know what is best for them, so humans sometimes have to make the decision for them.

Tom Bates

13:56 GMT, 14th November 2010

@Neil: Thank you for your feedback. Its unfortunate that these undesirable behaviours are occurring, given the efforts you have taken to discourage them. Assuming as you've said that the chickens have adequate space to roam and are in an environment that can maintain their interest, I can only suggest that the breed of chicken used has been bred for its egg yield, to the detriment of its social behaviour. Though, my guessing may not prove satisfactory! I point to the fact that, under the right conditions, its entirely possible to raise chickens for eggs without beak trimming, and avoid negative social behaviour. As an example I can point to Shillingford Organics - a farm within a few miles of where I live. They produce eggs for a great many veg box subscribers in and around Exeter, plus sell a good deal each week at a the local farmers market. I'm sure if contacted, they would be more than happy to give advice and best practises for raising chickens, including the particular breed they rear.