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Creating better housing for hens

Guelph researcher says understanding animal behaviour is critical

The simplest way to describe what Tina Widowski does is to say she’s trying to understand what makes for better housing systems for laying hens.

Except that improving housing for hens is no simple matter. It involves study of the animals’ behaviour, as well as an understanding of the cost of housing systems.

Widowski, who holds the Egg Farmers of Canada Research Chair in Poultry Welfare at the Ontario Agricultural College, University of Guelph, is focused on understanding the behaviour of hens so she can guide egg farmers as to the merits of different housing systems.

Widowski has been fascinated by animals since she was a child growing up in Chicago. When she was young, she figured she would either study animals like Jane Goodall or become a veterinarian.

She was on the vet school path when an agriculture class on animal housing in her fourth year of university got her interested in agriculture. Then a volunteer position at a lab to get livestock experience for an eventual vet school application got her interested in a whole other area altogether: the study of animal housing and amenities, as well as their welfare and behaviour.

Even in the States she knew about Guelph’s reputation for animal sciences. So when her husband, also an academic, was offered a position at the University of Guelph, she knew the city had opportunities for her too. After they moved to Canada, she joined the faculty and built up her career.

She now leads North America’s largest group of animal welfare scientists as director of the world-renowned Campbell Centre for the Study of Animal Welfare. In 2011 she was selected as the Egg Farmers of Canada Research Chair in Poultry Welfare. The partnership between the university and Egg Farmers of Canada is to run for seven years.

Increased study of housing parallels a rise in concern about animal welfare.

So it’s important to understand the impact the environment has on the animals, and from there determine how housing innovations can optimize animal well-being.

And knowing the answers to those questions comes from studying animal behaviour.

“The challenge is to identify the balance between what best meets the needs of the bird, while maintaining an effective, economically viable and sustainable system,” she says.

Her work is centred on learning how to recognize it, and then suggesting housing solutions that egg farmers can consider.

It’s not about telling farmers to buy this or that hen housing system, she says, but rather explaining the trade-offs of different systems. “It’s more about saying, here’s the type of nest box that works best, and when you are shopping for a nest box, consider this.”

She also says there’s no one single solution; it’s all about continuous improvement.