Tyson Foods’ animal welfare research team recently embarked on a study that leveraged animal preference to test which environmental enrichments its broiler chickens prefer. The project is among the many underway at Tyson Foods’ Broiler Welfare Research Farm (BWRF), a state-of-the-art four-house commercial broiler farm that allows the company’s Office of Animal Welfare and its research partners to scientifically evaluate and understand how welfare practices can impact broiler behavior and welfare outcomes in a commercial setting. The BWRF, which opened in October 2020, is a unique facility within the poultry industry. As an operating four-house broiler farm, it allows Tyson Foods to evaluate welfare with the involvement of trained collaborators from academia. The farm has viewing rooms that allow researchers to view the birds’ natural behaviors without disruption that can be introduced with the presence of humans.
The project is part of a two-year grant from the U.S. Poultry and Egg Association to study the impact of different lighting schemes and enrichments on the welfare of broiler chickens. Enrichments can be a key component of an effective animal welfare strategy that promotes more natural behaviors. The material Tyson Foods chose to construct the enrichments is durable, safe for growers, easily portable, made with recycled materials, and completely bio-secure to ensure no pathogens are introduced to the chickens’ environment.
Tyson Foods researchers focused on three structural variations – ramps, huts and boxes. Initial results showed a strong preference toward the huts among the chickens. As an animal that is considered prey in its natural environment, the chickens appeared to prefer the huts, which provided a sizeable, shelter-like structure that they could sit around and under, presumably giving them a sense of being protected. As further evidence, the chickens gravitated toward the huts independently and returned to them whenever they were removed and replaced.
University of Arkansas researchers are assisting in sample collection and behavior evaluation, monitoring chickens with and without enrichments. This work includes examining physiological factors that are good evaluations of positive welfare, such as dopamine and serotonin levels, and related chemical expressions as an indicator of the chickens’ happiness with the given environment. By measuring key health indicators of the chickens, as well as analyzing brain activity to assess their level of stress, researchers were able to make preliminary conclusions about the positive impact of the effective enrichment solutions on broiler welfare.
“Chickens have a very different perception of the world, and it is important that we respect that when we are making decisions for them,” said Dr. Karen Christensen, senior director of Animal Welfare at Tyson Foods. “Through their actions, they tell us loud and clear what they want – we just have to know how to listen.”
“This research is part of Tyson Foods’ larger commitment to invest in innovative science and technologies that improve animal welfare on a continuous, sustainable enterprise level,” said Christensen. “Our vision is to be the leader in animal welfare through a commitment that is grounded in compassionate care and based on sound science. It’s a Tyson Foods commitment, and it's the right thing to do.”
In the next round of the research, the team will be testing the impact of the more effective hut enrichments compared with a standard control barn without enrichments. The team expects to see demonstrable benefits across behavioral assessments, leg health, and dopamine and serotonin regulation with hut enrichments. Following rigorous analysis of the active research project, the team is confident that its confirmed findings will inform a potential future rollout of the hut structure to all Tyson Foods chicken houses around the country, extending the proven health and welfare benefits of the tested enrichments.
In addition to the enrichment research, Tyson Foods is collaborating on four projects with outside research groups as part of the SMART broiler project that was funded by McDonald’s and the Foundation for Food and Agricultural Research (FFAR), a part of the USDA.