2018 - 2023

Identifying developmental determinants of successful behavioural adaptation and musculoskeletal health of egg-laying hens

Principal Investigator: Tina Widowski, University of Guelph
Co-investigator: Karen Schwean-Lardner, University of Saskatchewan; Alexandra Harlander, University of Guelph; Bettina Willie, McGill University; Svetlana Komarova, McGill University
Collaborators: Donald Powers, George Fox University, Oregon, USA; Bret Tobalske, University of Montana, USA; Russell Main, Purdue University, Indiana USA
Status: In progress


The objective of this research is to advance understanding of the bone biology of laying hens and identify practices for housing and managing of different strains of pullets that result in a successful adaptation to a complex housing environment and a healthy hen to end-of-lay.  There are four subprojects with the following goals:  
  1. Compare the effects of different styles of commercial rearing aviaries on activity patterns, locomotory abilities, behavioural characteristics and musculoskeletal development of different strains of pullets,
  2. Determine the effect of light intensity on activity patterns, locomotory abilities, behavioural characteristics and musculo-skeletal development of different strains of pullets housed in a non-cage system,
  3. Determine the effect of transitioning between different housing systems on wing muscle strength, keel bone fracture, energetic costs of locomotion and injury, and fear of injury, and
  4. Observe the effects of age, strain, exercise and circadian rhythm on skeletal mechano-responsiveness, calcium homeostasis and bone quality.


The commercial success of egg laying flocks largely depends on hens’ adaptation to their housing system during lay, especially for hens in non-cage systems, where risk for injury and mortality are considerably higher compared to cage systems. Due to selection for high rates of egg production, osteoporosis and skeletal health issues are a problem for hens in all types of systems. Keel bone damage (KBD) and especially keel fractures are of particular concern, as they are known to be painful for the bird and may have consequences for her production. In non-cage systems keel fracture rates can be upwards of 90% of the flock, although hens housed in enriched cages also experience KBD.  Increasingly, more attention is being paid to the behavioural and physical development of chicks and pullets destined for complex housing as adults, as rearing in complex systems may improve their cognitive and physical development required to navigate complex aviaries. This project brings together poultry scientists with expertise in laying hen behaviour, health, welfare and management, avian biologists with expertise in biomechanics and energetics of flight and ground locomotion, and biomedical researchers with expertise and the most advanced techniques for studying bone biology with applications to human health and medicine.


$1,888,526 (AAFC/CPRC/EFC $1,810,605*, Egg Farmers of Alberta $24,500 (includes $5,000 in-kind), LRIC $22,500, Quebec Federation of Egg Producers $10,000, Clark's Poultry $3,420 (in-kind), Shriners Hospital for Children Canada $17,500 (in-kind) )

*This research is part of the 2018-2023 Poultry Science Cluster which is supported by AAFC as part of the Canadian Agricultural Partnership, a federal-provincial-territorial initiative.

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