Ranging behavior relates to welfare indicators pre- and post-range access in commercial free-range broilers

Poult Sci. 2018 Jun 1;97(6):1861-1871. doi: 10.3382/ps/pey060.


Little is known about the effect of accessing an outdoor range on chicken welfare. We tracked individual ranging behavior of 538 mixed-sex Ross 308 chickens on a commercial farm across 4 flocks in winter and summer. Before range access, at 17 to 19 d of age, and post-range access, at 30 to 33 and 42 to 46 d of age in winter and summer flocks respectively, welfare indicators were measured on chickens (pre-range: winter N = 292; summer N = 280; post-range: winter N = 131; summer N = 140), including weight, gait score, dermatitis and plumage condition. Post-ranging autopsies were performed (winter: N = 170; summer: N = 60) to assess breast burn, leg health, and ascites. Fewer chickens accessed the range in winter flocks (32.5%) than summer flocks (82.1%). Few relationships between welfare and ranging were identified in winter, likely due to minimal ranging and the earlier age of post-ranging data collection compared to summer flocks. In summer flocks prior to range access, chickens that accessed the range weighed 4.9% less (P = 0.03) than chickens that did not access the range. Pre-ranging weight, gait score, and overall plumage cover predicted the amount of range use by ranging chickens in summer flocks (P < 0.01), but it explained less than 5% of the variation, suggesting other factors are associated with ranging behavior. In summer flocks post-range access, ranging chickens weighed 12.8% less than non-ranging chickens (P < 0.001). More range visits were associated with lower weight (P < 0.01), improved gait scores (P = 0.02), greater breast plumage cover (P = 0.02), lower ascites index (P = 0.01), and less pericardial fluid (P = 0.04). More time spent on the range was associated with lower weight (P < 0.01) and better gait scores (P < 0.01). These results suggest that accessing an outdoor range in summer is partly related to changes in broiler chicken welfare. Further investigations are required to determine causation.

MeSH terms

  • Animal Husbandry / methods*
  • Animal Welfare*
  • Animals
  • Chickens / physiology*
  • Female
  • Housing, Animal*
  • Male
  • Motor Activity*
  • Victoria