Broiler (meat) chickens: welfare recommendations

Updated 27 February 2017

As a meat (broiler) chicken farmer, you need to follow these and the poultry farming welfare requirements.

You and any staff working with animals must read, understand and have access to the welfare code of recommendations for meat chickens.

You also need to take care of your livestock’s welfare off the farm and in extreme weather. You should see guidance on:

1. Qualifying for the Basic Payment Scheme and cross-compliance

If you’re involved in the Basic Payment Scheme, you need to follow cross-compliance regulations. To qualify for your subsidy payment, you mustn’t:

  • let your flock overgraze the natural or semi-natural vegetation
  • feed your animals anything harmful to them, or which would make the food they produce harmful to human health

To meet cross-compliance welfare standards for meat chickens you need to follow the current Statutory Management Requirement (SMR):

  • SMR 13 - animal welfare (formerly SMR 18)

The guide to cross compliance explains what you need to do to follow each SMR.

2. Stockmanship and managing chickens

All keepers of meat chickens in conventional systems must have a certificate confirming completion of a recognised training course.

For managing flocks with more than 500 birds that aren’t free-range or organic the course must cover:

  • looking after chicken health and welfare on commercial farms, including how to feed and house them
  • handling, catching, loading and transporting chickens
  • emergency care for chickens, emergency killing and culling
  • preventative biosecurity measures

You can no longer apply for grandfather rights and must take a recognised course.

You must not use an electric current to prevent any birds from moving.

2.1 Health and welfare plans

You or your stock-keeper should produce a written health and welfare plan, using vets and other health advisers. You should review and update this at least once a year.

Your plan should include:

  • biosecurity arrangements (health protection and disease prevention) on-farm and during transport
  • what you do with newly bought stock
  • the health and husbandry activities for the whole production cycle for each type of house used

3. Inspecting your flock

You should inspect all flocks at least twice a day. You should inspect young birds (in the first few days of life) more often.

You should identify any sick, injured or weak birds and remove any that are sick - treat them in a hospital pen.

Unless they can be treated and are likely to recover without unnecessary suffering, you should humanely cull birds that have:

  • major difficulties walking
  • severe ascites (accumulation of fluid in the peritoneal cavity)
  • malformations/disfigurements
  • severe wounds
  • seizures

You should remove dead birds immediately.

4. Stocking density

If you have 500 or more conventionally reared meat chickens on your holding you can stock birds at up to 33kg per square metre. You can increase this up to 39kg birds per square metre but there are extra requirements.

When stocking above 33kg per square metre you must keep documents in the housing with technical details and information on equipment, including:

  • a plan that shows the dimensions of the surfaces the chickens occupy
  • a ventilation plan and target air quality levels (including airflow, air speed and temperature) and details of cooling and heating systems and their location
  • the location and nature of feeding and watering systems (eg automatic or manual, how many feeders, how each is operated)
  • alarm and backup systems if any equipment essential for the chickens’ health and wellbeing fails
  • floor type and litter normally used
  • records of technical inspections of the ventilation and alarm systems

If you plan to stock above 33kg per square metre you must tell the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA) and state what your planned stocking density is.

You must give at least 15 working days’ notice before changing the stocking density.

5. Mutilating meat chickens

You should not normally mutilate your flock in any way. This includes:

  • limiting a bird’s vision by fitting any device
  • using a method that penetrates or mutilates a bird’s nasal septum (the wall dividing the nasal cavity in 2)
  • mutilating wings

If mutilation is essential (such as for welfare reasons) it must be done humanely by trained, competent staff can carry it out. You must also make sure the hygiene standards are high.

5.1 Beak trimming

See the guidance on mutilating poultry in the poultry welfare recommendations for the latest advice.

5.2 Dubbing

You should avoid dubbing (the removal of all or part of the male comb) as it has few health benefits.

It’s usually carried out on day-old chicks using sharp scissors and should only be carried out by trained personnel.

Once chicks are over 72 hours old only a vet can carry out dubbing.

5.3 Despurring

Despurring (removing the spur bud on the leg) is normally carried out on day-old males using a heated wire.

Prominent spurs can damage females during mating. Selective breeding for short, blunt spurs reduces the need for despurring.

5.4 Declawing

Declawing (removing the dew and pivot claw from the feet) is carried out on day-old males to prevent damage to females during mating.

Only a trained, competent person can carry out declawing.

5.5 Toe removal

Avoid removing toes for identification purposes - use other ways to identify birds (such as tags).

It’s normally carried out on day-old chicks using sharp scissors and should only be undertaken by trained personnel.

Once chicks are over 72 hours old only a vet can carry out toe removal.

6. Housing meat chickens

All chickens must have enough freedom of movement to be able to stand normally, turn around and stretch their wings without difficulty. They should also have enough space to be able to sit without interference from other birds.

You should follow general requirements for housing poultry as well as these guidelines.

You should either make feed available at all times, or you should feed at certain times. You must not withdraw feed earlier than 12 hours before slaughter.

6.1 Ventilation and temperature

Ventilation needs to provide enough fresh air for the birds and to keep the litter dry and friable (easy to work and powdery).

You should:

  • control dust levels
  • control carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and ammonia levels
  • avoid extremes of temperature - you should monitor maximum and minimum temperatures each day
  • protect birds from cold draughts
  • place chicks in the brooding area when they arrive in the house and monitor their behaviour

You must also make sure that each house has ventilation and (if needed) a heating and cooling system that:

  • keeps the concentration of ammonia (NH3) below 20 parts per million (ppm), measured at the level of the chickens’ heads
  • keeps the concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) below 3,000ppm, measured at the level of the chickens’ heads
  • when the outside temperature measured in the shade is over 30C, the inside temperature is never more than 3C warmer
  • keeps the average relative humidity inside the house over any 48 hour period below 70% when the outside temperature is below 10C

You must also keep records and relevant documents (eg the technical details, gas concentration levels) up to date.

6.2 Lighting

You should house chickens at light levels that let them see clearly and stimulate activity. Lighting systems should give at least 20 lux at bird-eye height and illuminate at least 80% of the usable area.

You can temporarily reduce the lighting level following a vet’s advice, for example if there are behavioural problems like cannibalism.

You must make sure that within 7 days of placing chickens in the building and until 3 days before the expected time of slaughter, lighting must:

  • follow a 24-hour rhythm cycle (at least 8 hours of artificial lighting each day)
  • include periods of darkness lasting at least 6 hours in total
  • have at least 1 uninterrupted period of darkness of at least 4 hours (excluding dimming periods)

6.3 Litter

You must give chickens access at all times to, well-maintained litter or to a well-drained resting area.

You must make sure that litter is loose, dry and friable and minimise the risk of mould and mite infestation. You should inspect it frequently for signs of deterioration - don’t use mouldy litter, or if it becomes too wet or too dry.

You should use a water system that minimises water spillage, such as water nipples with drip cups positioned at an appropriate height for all birds. You can use nipple drinkers without cups if they’re well managed and you check the water pressure often.

6.4 Free-range birds

You should prevent fowl sickness by:

  • frequently monitoring land the birds range on for worm burden
  • creating a new ranging area by moving portable unit housing or rotating the ranging area outside fixed buildings

You need to have enough housing so that birds can be housed in bad weather.

You should offer:

  • vegetation that’s suitable and managed for the birds
  • a fresh supply of water
  • overhead cover

These should be far enough away from the house to encourage the birds to range.

6.5 New flocks

Before you introduce a new flock to a depopulated house you must:

  • clean and disinfect any part of a house and any equipment or utensils that have been in contact with chickens
  • remove litter and replace with clean litter

7. Using automatic or mechanical equipment

You should place, operate and maintain equipment so that noise is kept to as low a level as possible.

You should keep all equipment and surfaces clean and inspect them to make sure they’re in good working order and fix any problems immediately. You must inspect any equipment essential for the health and wellbeing of your animals at least once a day.

Equipment you need to inspect includes:

  • feed hoppers
  • drinkers
  • ventilating fans
  • heating and lighting units
  • fire extinguishers
  • alarm systems

You must have:

  • a failsafe or standby device for any automated equipment that birds depend on for their welfare
  • an automated ventilation system and an alarm system to warn the flock-keeper of automatic equipment failure

You must test these systems weekly and fix any faults immediately.

8. Record keeping

You must record:

  • the number and breed (or hybrid) of chickens
  • the usable area
  • the number of dead chickens (so that the mortality rate can be calculated) and the apparent cause of death, and the remaining number
  • the number and average weight of birds removed for slaughter, or when thinning the flock to reduce stocking density, and the remaining number
  • number of culls (and reason for cull) - make sure you identify leg culls as well
  • feed consumed - daily and cumulative
  • body weight in relation to expected growth rates
  • the internal floor area of the house
  • daily water consumption - you should fit water meters in each house
  • testing and maintenance of automatic equipment, including alarms, fail safes, fire extinguishers and stand-by generators
  • daily maximum and minimum temperature
  • the lighting intensity and duration
  • dates of cleaning and disinfection
  • when you consulted a vet, including the date and outcome
  • medicine and vaccine administration records

You must keep these records for at least 3 years and make them available to any authorised person who asks for them, eg from Defra, the APHA or your local authority.

9. Removing hatchery waste

You must dispose of hatchery waste legally.