AgBioResearch Scientist Part of Team Studying Wireless Sensors to Monitor Chicken Well-being

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Janice Siegford (view larger image)

A team of MSU researchers is exploring the use of new wireless technology to determine its effectiveness in monitoring the welfare of egg-laying chickens.

Using a $375,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the researchers will test wearable sensors that will monitor how hens use space and resources in non-cage environments.

The scientists have developed a wearable, wireless sensor system to track a hen’s activity, including how she moves with respect to other hens and fixed items such as nest boxes, perches and water stations. The sensor weighs less than 1 ounce.

“The purpose of the USDA grant is to use the wearable sensors to understand how laying hens use space and resources, such as perches and nest boxes, in non-cage housing systems,” said team member Janice Siegford, MAES animal science researcher. “Ultimately, the sensors also will tell us what behavior a hen is performing. Is she laying an egg? Eating? Or roosting on a perch? Does she fly or walk to move around?”

Wearable and networked wireless sensor technology is currently being studied mainly for human health monitoring. The MSU scientists want to develop applications for the technology in the context of monitoring animal health and well-being.

The information will help researchers understand how to provide hens with key resources and how much space they need, and offer a scientific basis for designing non-cage housing systems for laying hens that provide the best possible conditions for the animals.

The research could potentially lead to commercially available automated systems to monitor hen welfare.

“The general public is concerned about how animals in production are housed and whether they can show natural behaviors,” Siegford said. “In response, the U.S. egg industry is considering adopting non-cage housing systems for their laying hens.

“But non-cage systems that are poorly designed can cause health problems and can lead to feather pecking and cannibalism,” she continued. “So, to design non-cage systems that really improve the welfare of laying hens, we need to understand how these housing systems affect the behavior and health of the individual birds living in the systems.”

Other team members are Janice Swanson, professor of animal science and large animal clinical science; Darrin Karcher, animal science specialist; Ruth Newberry and Marvin Pitts, from Washington State University; and Joy Mench, University of California-Davis.

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