ChickenEnriched colony cages provide hens with more space than traditional battery cages. These cages give hens room to roost on perches, but this behavior may also cause deformities. (Photo by Tom Campbell)

"Seed" Money

Legislature Funds Research to Benefit
Agriculture, State

By Keith Robinson - Published December 10, 2014

Now that the poultry industry is beginning to use cages that allow hens to move about and act more naturally, Purdue University researcher Maja Makagon says it should know how to make those enriched living quarters work in the interests of the birds, the producers and the watchful public.

"We are moving toward these enriched colony systems," Makagon says. "This is a time to stimulate further research into how they should be built."

Makagon, an assistant professor of animal sciences, is leading one of 19 projects funded through a Purdue College of Agriculture initiative called AgSEED, short for Agricultural Science and Extension for Economic Development. The Indiana Legislature in 2013 funded AgSEED through the state's Crossroads program as part of Indiana's commitment to agriculture and rural development. Additional projects will be funded in early 2015.

The 19 projects that received 2013 funding were among 95 proposals submitted by faculty and staff in the colleges of Agriculture, Health and Human Sciences, and Veterinary Medicine. Funding was capped at $50,000 for one-year projects and $75,000 for two-year projects.

More Space, Furnishings Not the Only Answer

Makagon's one-year project was prompted by recent moves on the state and federal levels for cages that provide more space for laying hens as well as furnishings, such as perches, nest boxes and scratch pads, and consumers' growing interest in how their food is produced.

Perches of various materials
Purdue researchers are working to develop a perch that promotes hen health. They are testing perches (above) made of Astroturf, cork and soft wood and then comparing the results to the metal perches often used in enriched colony cages. (Photo by Tom Campbell)

Makagon notes that while the larger cages allow hens to perform more of their natural behaviors such as roosting, other problems may persist and new issues arise from them. For example, a perch allows hens to roost, which can strengthen bones. But roosting can lead to deformity of the keel (an extension of the sternum), skeletal fractures and damage to footpads.

The research has four objectives:

  • Evaluate the effect of novel perch material such as Astroturf, cork, soft wood and metal on behavior, skeletal integrity, foot health and productivity.
  • Assess the hens' preferences for such types of perches.
  • Determine how perching materials affect the spread of northern fowl mites, the most common laying hen parasite. The mites can reduce egg production, lessen the quality of eggs and lower body weight.
  • Evaluate how the materials affect oils such as lavender, garlic and thyme that might be used to eradicate mites.

Makagon says the project could lead to larger grants, such as from the federal government, for further research into each of those areas.

"This truly is a 'seed' project," she says.

The long-term goal is to develop a perch that is cost-effective and easy to use and promotes hen well-being and biosecurity.

Industry, Government Respond to Need

Industry sees the importance of the research and has responded. In addition to the state funding,Creighton Brothers farm in Atwood, Indiana, donated the pullets used in the project, and Syngenta Crop Protection, a member of Purdue's Industrial Affiliates Program, contributed funds to support parts of the research dealing with control of mites.

Research team members include Patricia (Scotti) Hester, professor of animal sciences; Giuseppe Vezzoli, animal sciences research assistant; and Grzegorz Buczkowski, entomology research associate professor.

Other AgSEED projects underway are working to:

  • Develop a sanitizing treatment to improve the safety and quality of Indiana cantaloupe.
  • Quantify the effects, both positive and negative, of neonicotinoids (insecticides)—toxic to honeybees and other insects—in and around no-till, cover-cropped agricultural fields.
  • Create a mobile app to help livestock producers comply with new state regulations by enabling them to quickly locate setbacks in relation to a field being evaluated for fertilizer application or temporary storage of manure.

Jay Akridge, Glenn W. Sample Dean of Purdue Agriculture, says the AgSEED initiative "will help Indiana better position itself not only for economic growth and jobs in our food and agricultural industries, but for a world that will demand adequate nutrition and energy for 9 billion people by 2050."