I recently served as a judge for a contest conducted by Perdue Farms designed to develop environmental enrichments for broiler chickens. In many organic or high welfare standard programs, additional items have to be added to the environment to accommodate the behavioral needs of the animals. Chickens have a natural instinct to roost, climb up and hide under things. Perdue challenged their growers to invent enrichments and submit them in a contest. A total of 33 growers submitted their designs. To be eligible, each design had to be built and tested in a real broiler house. The Perdue staff narrowed the field to five finalists for the final judging. On the day of the contest, the five winning entries had all been constructed and installed at the Perdue Research Farm.

When the judging team entered the research barn, it was obvious that the broilers were actively using all five of the enrichments. The birds were midway through the growing period and very active. The entries were judged for both broiler behaviors and practicality of use for the production procedures. During chicken catching and cleaning of the barn, for example, the enrichment devices must be easy to move out of the way.

Ingenuity at work

The five final entries were distinctly different and clearly illustrated the originality and creativity of the family farmer producers. They included:

The Carpenter Bench This design was mounted on the barn wall and it consisted of a 12-in. wide by 6-ft. long shelf with two cleated ramps. The chickens walked up the ramps and roosted on the shelf. The entire unit was hinged and could be folded up against the wall for catching and cleanout.

Chicken Tree This enrichment was constructed from old pallet boards that pivoted on a central rod and placed on the floor of the barn. During use, the boards were fanned out like a tree, and during catching, it was hung on the wall with boards rotated flat.

Suspended Roosting Ramp Many chickens climbed and roosted on this design. It was a larger unit with a plastic pipe frame and mesh netting surfaces. The inventor experimented with different types of netting to find one that chickens could easily walk on. During catching, it would be hoisted up to the ceiling, the same way feeders and waterers are raised.

Enrichment 1900 This entry consisted of two small wooden ramps hinged on the top like a tent. The cleated ramp angle could be adjusted by how wide the tent was opened. For cleaning, it would be picked up, folded, and hung on the wall.

Chuckles This entry, named by the producer’s children, was constructed from plastic pipe and plastic lattice material. It had ramps, a roost area, a hiding place and a hay feeder.

The Carpenter Bench, the winner, was entered by Four C Farms. The whole family was involved in the process, with the parents and two children wearing T-shirts that read “Happy Chickens are Healthy Chickens.”

Beneficial designs

Providing broilers with ramps and devices to walk on helps improve leg health and reduces lameness. This can provide a real economic benefit.

Many of Perdue’s growers have older barns with low roofs. This is one reason why the smaller devices that could be set out on the floor would be preferred. The larger suspended ramp would not work in these buildings. In larger barns, the suspended ramp might be the preferred design. What this shows is that designs need to be effective in the environments and conditions they are to be used in.

One of the finalist’s families told everybody this project changed how they viewed chickens. Previously, they were not very interested in the quality of life for a chicken. After they saw how the chickens “enjoyed” using their device, it changed how they viewed chickens. They were no longer just production activities.