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Omega-3 acids could reduce bone breakage in laying hens

5 April 2011

Researchers at the University of Bristol funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council have found that adding the right combination of fatty acids to the diets of laying hens can significantly reduce bone breakage during lay. The research could provide a potentially significant route to maintaining food production whilst promoting animal welfare.

The scientists are speaking about their research at The Association of Veterinary Teaching and Research Work (AVTRW), ASF, British Society of Animal Science (BSAS), World Poultry Science Association (WPSA) Annual Conference at the University of Nottingham today (5 April 2011).

Bone breakage is a considerable welfare issue in laying hens and of the 29 million egg-laying birds in the UK a large proportion experience varying degrees of bone damage. Whilst increased food production is important to combat the challenges of global food security, this must not be achieved at the cost of the welfare of farmed animals. Therefore, reducing bone breakages in laying hens is an important issue.

Lindsay Wilkins at the University of Bristol said: "Laying hens are particularly susceptible to high levels of damage to the keel (breast bone) which result from their relatively poor bone health. This is an increasing issue as the industry moves towards production systems that allow for more movement and access to outside. Whilst these systems have obvious welfare benefits they also increase the higher risk of accidents and breakages."

John Tarlton who leads the present study added: "Our research has shown that omega-3 fatty acid added to the diet of free-range egg laying hens resulted in the birds' bones being significantly stronger, with up to 40% fewer breaks".

The researchers worked with Noble Foods as an industrial partner and their findings are already being implemented to produce improved feeds.

Professor Douglas Kell, Chief Executive, BBSRC said: "To ensure that we can feed a growing world population sustainably and well it is essential that farmers maximise production, but this cannot be done at the expense of animal welfare. By working with industrial partners researchers are able to implement their work more quickly to the benefit of farmers and their hens."

Another member of the Bristol group, Michael Toscano, continued: "In addition to benefits to the chicken, omega-3 fatty acids are also beneficial for human health. One objective of our research has been to produce an egg with fatty acid content that benefits consumers, whilst achieving the same bone strengthening effect in the chicken. Our next challenge is to find the ideal balance of different fatty acids to maximise the hen's welfare whilst producing more nutritious eggs resulting in a positive outcome for chickens, producers and consumers."

This work was also carried out with support from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.


Notes to editors

This study is a follow on project to the Defra funded research by Bristol University assessing the welfare of laying hens and ways to alleviate bone damage.


BBSRC is the UK funding agency for research in the life sciences. Sponsored by Government, BBSRC annually invests around £470M in a wide range of research that makes a significant contribution to the quality of life in the UK and beyond and supports a number of important industrial stakeholders, including the agriculture, food, chemical, healthcare and pharmaceutical sectors.

BBSRC provides institute strategic research grants to the following:

  • The Babraham Institute
  • Institute for Animal Health
  • Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences (Aberystwyth University)
  • Institute of Food Research
  • John Innes Centre
  • The Genome Analysis Centre
  • The Roslin Institute (University of Edinburgh)
  • Rothamsted Research

The Institutes conduct long-term, mission-oriented research using specialist facilities. They have strong interactions with industry, Government departments and other end-users of their research.