Hele Snavels project

02/10/2020 - 14:31

Hele Snavels ("Whole Beaks"), a project in cooperation with Proefbedrijf Pluimveehouderij, investigates the impact of omitting beak treatment on laying hens. Through practical monitoring and validation, the project aims to assist poultry farmers in keeping laying hens in a profitable, sustainable and animal-friendly way.

Goal of the project

Under pressure of legislation and the market, many Flemish layer farmers are forced to switch to keeping hens with whole beaks. However, most laying-hen farmers in Flanders are not adequately prepared for this transition. In order to guide poultry farmers through the changeover and to ensure that they remain competitive on international markets, the Pilot Company for Poultry Farming, together with Pehestat, started the 'Whole Beaks' demonstration project in August 2020.

With this demo project Pehestat and Proefbedrijf Pluimveehouderij want to investigate the impact of leaving out beak treatment on laying hen farms in Flanders and gain insight in the factors that stimulate pecking. Furthermore, we want to validate a monitoring tool in practice to detect early signs of (harmful) pecking behaviour. After all, early detection of feather pecking is crucial to prevent further spread.

Collecting and analysing these data in a structured database will provide insight into the differences between houses and rounds within the same company and between companies. Building a predictive model based on certain trigger factors and preventive measures will increase in value as the database grows.

There is a clear need to understand the many concerns and consequences of keeping hens with intact beaks. Controlling harmful pecking behaviour and cannibalism contributes directly to improved animal welfare. Good management of pecking can improve the overall health of layer poultry, layers and dams and reduce the prevalence of secondary infections (e.g. coli infections) and the subsequent use of medicines.

With the project, we want to assist poultry farmers in keeping laying hens in a profitable, sustainable and animal-friendly way.


The causes of feather pecking are multifactorial. It is often difficult to determine why feather pecking occurs and why it escalates into cannibalism. It is not clear whether hens with whole beaks are more sensitive to changes and stress, but preliminary research at the Research Station for Poultry Breeding shows that under the same conditions they do react differently and initiate (uncontrolled) pecking behaviour much faster and that the damage is much greater compared to hens with lasered beaks.


Harmful pecking behaviour and cannibalism cause increased mortality, early culling and a decrease in total egg production, total egg mass and first-choice eggs. In addition, feed consumption rises: because of feather loss and because secondary infections require the animals to invest more protein in the production of antibodies and the restoration of natural barriers. If harmful pecking behaviour occurs in a flock, the consequences are much greater than in a flock where the beaks have been treated with IR laser.

How it works

During the project 20 Flemish companies keeping laying hens with whole beaks (flocks older than 50 weeks) will be followed. An extensive range of data is collected that can influence the occurrence and escalation of injurious feather pecking. Combined with production data and a plumage evaluation, an overview is obtained of the effect of switching to whole beak hens in Flanders.

In addition, 6 additional farms will be intensively followed during at least 50 weeks and extensively monitored in terms of technical data, health status, influencing pecking factors and plumage. Where possible, at least one visit is made to the flock during rearing and all technical information from the rearing is included in the data collection.


  1. Determine the economic and animal welfare impact of beak-treatment omission
  2. Investigate triggering factors and (preventive) measures and draw up an advisory guide based on this knowledge.
  3. Practical validation of a 'pecking checklist' for early detection of restlessness and undesirable pecking behaviour
  4. Raising awareness in the poultry sector by means of communication, information and practical training courses
  5. Improving the image of the egg producing sector

What Pehestat does

Follow-up of laying hen farms

Pehestat carries out farm visits at 10 of the 20 selected laying hen farms:

  1. Technical data (e.g. mortality, production, feed consumption ...) and health history of the hens are collected in detail. Preferably, data from the rearing period is also kept if available.
  2. By means of a questionnaire, the factors that may contribute to the occurrence of (damaging) feather pecking behaviour (e.g. breed, flock size, weight in rearing, production evolution, housing system, feed and light schedule, red bird mite infestation, worm infestation, water quality, distraction, etc.) are assessed. A distinction is made between rearing and laying periods and attention is paid to the transition from rearing to laying.
  3. The plumage of the hens is extensively evaluated together with the poultry farmer. The extensive feather score is combined with the 'checklist pecking'.

After the farm visits, Pehestat collects and processes the data anonymously in a dataset in order to assess the effect of leaving out the beak treatment. Pehestat uses its extensive data set with additional data on animal health and zootechnical performance of layer farms.

Follow-up of 6 additional laying hen farms & practical validation of the monitoring tool

Together with Proefbedrijf Pluimveehouderij, Pehestat monitors 6 additional companies. Contrary to the 20 other companies, the hens in these companies are closely monitored from the start in order to follow the evolution of the technical data, health status and pecking factors in time. Where possible, at least one visit to the flock is made in rearing and all technical information from the rearing is included in the data collection.

Pehestat guarantees the data collection and storage and integrates the 'checklist pecking' in its data collection systems. This way, poultry farmers, researchers and veterinarians get more insight in the evolution of the plumage (signals of possible pecking) of the flock throughout the round.

In total there are about 10 million laying hens in Flanders (including poults) and of these about 7,395,000 produce 2,338,750,000 consumption eggs annually.

The project focuses primarily on Flemish laying hen farms, but also provides important insights for rearing farms and parent companies.

Would you like to know more about the Hele Snavels project?

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