Broiler chickens often make limited use of the free-range area. Range use is influenced by type of shelter available. Range use may possibly be improved by a more gradual transition from the house to the range and by using dark brooders (secluded warm, dark areas in the home pen) that mimic aspects of a broody hen and possibly reduce fearfulness. The aim of this study was to assess effects of dark brooders on fearfulness, free-range use and behaviour later in life. Another aim was to test the chickens’ preference for shelter type and the effects of overhangs outside of the pop holes to provide a gradual transition to the range. Three production rounds, each with 440 Sasso broiler chickens (110/group), were completed. Chicks were housed indoors from days 0 to 25; per round, two groups had access to a dark brooder, whereas the other two groups had conventional IR lamps. Fearfulness was assessed by the open field (OF) and tonic immobility (TI) tests on days 22 to 24 on 25 chicks/group per round. Birds were then moved to four mobile houses from which they could access both grassland with artificial shelter (AS) and short rotation coppice (SRC). Two of the houses had overhangs extending from the pop holes; these were switched between the four houses weekly. Free-range use and behaviour were observed three times daily from Monday to Friday. Dark brooders did not affect results from the OF or TI test, except for jumps in the OF test which tended to occur less often in brooded chicks. Neither dark brooders (34.9% without v. 31.7% with brooder) nor overhangs (32.5% without v. 34.1% with overhangs) influenced the percentage of chickens outside. Chickens showed a clear preference for SRC, range use increased over time in SRC, and more birds ranged farther from the house in SRC. Behaviours of chickens observed outside were mainly influenced by shelter type, age of the birds and distance from the house. Locomotion tended to occur more in the presence of overhangs. Overall, these results could not confirm the hypothesis that dark brooders would decrease fearfulness and thereby increase free-range use. Overhangs also did not improve free-range use, and neither brooders nor overhangs had considerable impact on behaviour of chickens outside. Chickens clearly preferred dense natural vegetation over AS and ranged farther in it, indicating that this type of shelter is more suitable for slow-growing free-range broilers.
- dark brooder
- short rotation coppice