A team of researchers has been awarded a £400,000 grant to investigate how to improve the diets of broiler breeder chickens.

Funding agency the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) has given the money to academics from Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC), Newcastle University, The Roslin Institute and Biomathematics and Statistics Scotland (BioSS) to study the birds’ behaviour, and their brain activity, to establish the best possible diet to keep them feeling full for longer.

According to the researchers, the life of broiler breeder chickens – parents of chickens grown for their meat – has long been a welfare issue. While offspring will be slaughtered after around six weeks, broiler breeders live much longer. Hitting puberty at 20 weeks, they can grow obese when they are adult if their food is not controlled, leading to serious health problems. Under feeding, meanwhile, will cause hunger.

Project leader and SRUC researcher Rick D’Eath said: “This research will assess how the chickens are affected by different types and amounts of food. We need to understand how best to rear them from chick to adult, keeping them healthy without overfeeding or underfeeding them.”

According to the team, there may be better ways to raise the birds from chick, and better diets to support their growth and the appetite they develop. Before puberty, birds are ration-fed, receiving as little as a quarter to a third as much food as they would choose to eat if allowed to feed freely from one day old.

A potential solution to the problem of hunger, said the researchers, could be the addition of indigestible high-fibre ingredients to the chickens’ feed. These can potentially make the chickens feel more satisfied and as they are very low energy, they shouldn’t result in excessive weight gain. However, having a physically full gut is only one part of feeling satisfied and not hungry.

This project will also investigate how different diets affect signs of hunger in the brain, the gut and in the birds’ behaviour to better understand whether they genuinely feel less hungry when fed the newly designed diets. SRUC’s team will assess the behaviour aspect while The Roslin Institute and Newcastle University will provide expertise on brain and gut physiology, with experimental design advice and analysis provided by BioSS.

“The feeding of broiler breeder chickens is a welfare concern around the world,” said Dr D’Eath. “At the end of this three-year project we hope to inform and influence future poultry industry guidance on feeding broiler breeders, which could improve the welfare of millions of chickens around the world.”

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