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The effects of different types of fibre-rich feed on welfare in broiler breeder pullets

Reduced energy content in the standard feed combined with a daily allocation of roughage may be the way to go to prevent problems of hunger and unsatisfied behavioural needs in conventional broiler parents. This is what the results of a comprehensive study show. The study was conducted by Department of Animal Science, Aarhus University, at the request of the Ministry of Environment and Food.

[Translate to English:] Forældredyrshønekyllinger fra forsøget, hvor virkningen af tre fiberrige fodertyper på dyrevelfærden under opdræt, er blevet undersøgt.  Foto: Anja B. Riber.
[Translate to English:] Forældredyrshønekyllinger fra forsøget, hvor virkningen af tre fiberrige fodertyper på dyrevelfærden under opdræt, er blevet undersøgt. Foto: Anja B. Riber.

If conventional broiler breeders are fed ad libitum, it results in obesity and consequently in health and fertility issues, as the birds are selected for increased appetite and growth. Therefore, broiler breeders are severely fed restricted, especially during rearing, in order to prevent health and reproductive problems. However, this results in other challenges.

Restrictive feeding results in welfare problems

“The restrictive feeding introduces other welfare problems, as it entails that basic behavioural and physiological needs are not met. This often results in abnormal behaviour (indicating frustration and hunger) and physiological stress responses. Previous studies have tried to find solutions eliminating or at least reducing the extent of the welfare problems linked to feed restriction. However, an effective solution has not yet been found”, says senior researcher and project leader Anja Brinch Riber from Department of Animal Science, Aarhus University.

Qualitative feed restriction, however, is deemed to be a promising method for increasing satiety and improving the behavioural opportunities, hence increasing the welfare of the broiler breeders. The idea of qualitative feed restriction is to reduce the feed quality regarding the energy content by adding diluents, with no or poor value, to the standard feed. By increasing the fibre content, the daily feed ration can be increased.

“The optimum feed formula still needs to be determined, though. Therefore, we have conducted a feeding experiment in which we examined the effect of three fibre-rich types of feed on the animal welfare in broiler breeder pullets during rearing. The effect of the three different types of feed was measured using behavioural, stress-related physiological and clinical welfare indicators”, clarifies Anja Brinch Riber.

Feeding-experiments with pullets

In total, 1200 day-old broiler breeder pullets (genotype Ross 308) were included in the experiment. They were divided into 24 groups of 50 chickens. Each of the 24 groups were provided with one of the four feeding types so that each treatment had six repetitions. The four types of feed were:

  1. Insoluble: standard feed diluted with insoluble fibres (oat hulls)
  2. Mixed: standard feed diluted with a combination of insoluble fibres (oat hulls) and a minor amount of soluble fibres (sugar beet pulp)
  3. Roughage: standard feed supplemented with roughage (maize silage)
  4. Control: standard feed (2-mm pellets, 11.8 MJ ME/kg, 200 g of protein/kg from DLG a.m.b.a.).

Effect of the three treatments

Roughage treatment
Overall, the study showed that the best results were obtained with the Roughage treatment. The pullets from the Roughage treatment showed signs of improved animal welfare, among others in the form of cleaner and less damaged plumage, reduced occurrence of foot pad dermatitis and cloacal discharge, and fewer and smaller stress lines in the feathers. In accordance to this, the litter quality of the roughage treatment was better than in the Control and Mixed treatments. A likely explanation for the higher litter quality is the allocation of maize silage, leading to increased scratching activity, which increases aeration and drying of the litter. However, only limited evidence was found for the Roughage treatment resulting in  increased satiety, as pullets from this treatment did not differentiate from Control pullets in the frustration test or in the motivation test in order to gain access to fresh litter.

Mixed treatment
Contrarily, pullets from the Mixed treatment showed several signs of reduced welfare. These signs included increased motivation for explorative behaviour; higher occurrence of footpad dermatitis; cloacal discharge as well as damaged and dirty plumage; stress, indicated by reduced growth rate of feathers and the placement of stress lines on the feathers; and an increased motivation to gain access to fresh litter. Many of the results showing signs of a negative effect of the welfare in pullets in the Mixed treatment are probably linked to the observed reduction of litter quality in the Mixed treatment. Under commercial conditions, this would not be acceptable.

Insoluble treatment
In the clinical study and in the registration of stress lines, the Insoluble treatment was almost comparable to the Control treatment. However, in the test for feeding motivation, pullets from the Insoluble treatment showed signs of reduced frustration and thus lower feeding motivation, and they had a lower compensatory feed intake, indicating increased satiety. These results show that the Insoluble treatment could partly alleviate hunger in broiler breeders, but the effect was not sufficient to obtain a significant improvement of animal welfare.

Recommendations for a future feeding strategy

Based on these results, the researchers recommend to further develop a feeding strategy which includes daily allocation of roughage to broiler breeders during rearing. For optimum effect, this should be combined with a dilution of standard feed with insoluble fibres such as oat hulls.

“A reduction of the energy content in the standard feed, combined with a daily allocation of roughage, will perhaps result in the same positive effects of the treatments ‘Insoluble’ and ‘Roughage’: reduction of the feeling of hunger, improvement of clinical welfare indicators and less stress, while the negative effects observed in the Mixed treatment are excluded”, concludes Anja Brinch Riber.

The present study also evaluated other parameters, for example the weight of the gastrointestinal system at different ages and its content at different times of day, feed passage time, and the concentration of glucose, lactate and phospholipids in the blood. The results of these parameters, which will be presented in the other part of this report, will give further insight into the effects of the used feed types on the welfare of broiler breeder pullets.


Facts about the project


The Ministry of Environment and Food of Denmark.
The report was produced as part of the “framework agreement between the Ministry of Environment and Food of Denmark and Aarhus University about research-based public sector consultancy by the Ministry of Environment and Food of Denmark with underlying supervisory councils 2019-2022” (assignment 2.08 in the 2019 working programme for the Service Contract of Animal Production).

Project period

01-10-2018 to 31-01-2020    


Department of Animal Science, Aarhus University. No external partners. However, we have obtained knowledge from DanHatch about rearing conditions under commercial conditions.

More information

Link to the report: https://pure.au.dk/portal/files/179338342/Kvalitativ_foderrestriktion_af_for_ldredyr_velf_rd.pdf.

Three of four articles on which the report is based are in press, while the last one has been submitted:

1. Tahamtani, F.M., Moradi, H. and Riber, A.B. 2020. Effect of qualitative feed restriction in broiler breeder pullets on stress and clinical welfare indicators. Frontiers in Veterinary Science. doi: 10.3389/fvets.2020.00316. In print

2. Riber, A.B. and Tahamtani., F.M. 2020. Motivation for feeding in broiler breeder pullets fed different types of restricted high-fibre diets. Applied Animal Behaviour Science. Accepted.

3. Tahamtani, F.M. and Riber, A.B. 2020. Effect of qualitative feed restriction in broiler breeder pullets on fear and motivation to explore. Applied Animal Behaviour Science. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2020.105009. In print

4. Riber, A.B., Tahamtani, F.M. and Steenfeldt, S. 2020. Effect of qualitative feed restriction in broiler breeder pullets on behaviour in the home environment. Applied Animal Behaviour Science. Submitted   


Anja Brinch Riber, Department of Animal Science, Aarhus University

E-mail: anja.riber@anis.au.dk