White eggs lined up in neat rows 3dmentat/iStock/Thinkstock

FFAR awards $1.4m to improve health, productivity of egg-laying hens

Grants awarded after competitive call for innovative proposals for research to reduce keel bone fractures in egg-laying hens.

The Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research (FFAR), a nonprofit established in the 2014 farm bill, has awarded three grants totaling $1.4 million to Purdue University, the University of California-Davis (UC-Davis) and the University of Edinburgh in Scotland to improve the health and productivity of egg-laying hens.

The three grant awards are the result of a competitive call for innovative proposals for research to reduce keel bone fractures in egg-laying hens. Bone fractures, which cause pain and decrease egg production, are a known challenge to raising hens in cage-free housing systems and are particularly prevalent in the keel, or breastbone.

Based on U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates of the number of hens needed to meet existing cage-free pledges, including pledges by all top 25 U.S. grocers, FFAR said this research has the potential to improve the welfare and productivity of approximately 225 million hens by 2025.

FFAR executive director Dr. Sally Rockey said the foundation "is pleased to support innovative approaches to reducing bone fractures in egg-laying hens -- a phenomenon that harms both productivity and hen health. Today's farmers and ranchers face new challenges arising from a changing production environment, and cutting-edge research remains critical to providing producers with science-based solutions to those challenges."

The following principal investigators will lead three distinct research efforts to reduce bone fractures in egg-laying hens:

* Dr. Ian Dunn, a research scientist at the University of Edinburgh's Roslin Institute, and collaborators at the poultry genetics companies Hy-Line and Lohmann Tierzucht, will lay the groundwork for breeding hens with stronger bones by developing a novel X-ray-based measurement system adapted for on-farm use.

* Dr. Darrin Karcher, Purdue assistant professor and extension specialist, and collaborators will conduct research to determine the impact of nutritional interventions on the gut microbiome, in addition to management interventions that help producers reduce keel bone fractures in laying hens housed in cage-free systems.

* Dr. Maja Makagon, UC-Davis assistant professor, will lead a team of collaborators from UC-Davis, the University of Bristol in the U.K., the University of Bern in Switzerland and Iowa State University to explore the effects of poultry housing design -- particularly vertical space -- on the prevalence of keel bone injuries in egg-laying hens.

These grants support the FFAR Protein Challenge, which aims to enhance and improve the environmental, economic and social sustainability of producing diverse proteins for a growing global population, the announcement said.

These grants were funded by a partnership designed to improve the welfare and productivity of egg-laying hens and commercially raised pigs. The partnership, which supports producers' ability to adapt to a changing animal production landscape, is funded with a $1 million grant from the Open Philanthropy Project that is matched by a $1 million investment from FFAR.

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