The aim of this work was to study the effect of keel fractures on the extent to which free-range hens access the range through pop holes. Over two consecutive laying periods (two production years) a total of 1100 individual birds from one half of a house, divided into four separated flocks, were caught at 25, 35, 45, 55 and 65 weeks, palpated to assess the prevalence and severity of keel fractures and tagged with RFID transponders. Their use of pop holes was subsequently monitored in some cases from week 25 to end of lay at 68 to 70 weeks. At regular intervals (every 10 weeks), the tagged birds were re-caught to assess changes in keel fracture prevalence and severity. The average percentage of birds with fractured keels at 25, 35, 45, 55, 65 and at end of lay (68 to 70 weeks of age) was 5.5, 25.5, 49, 63, 66.5 and 78.5, respectively, across both production years. The effect of keel score on pop hole use was modelled statistically, adjusting for weather conditions and age of the birds. There were significant effects of most of the weather variables recorded, as well as age of the bird, on use of pop holes and also a significant effect of keel score. Higher keel scores resulted in a reduction in pop hole use. A significant statistical interaction between keel score and ambient temperature revealed an accelerated reduction in use as the temperature decreased and keel score increased. It is concluded that the occurrence of keel fractures may affect the birds' ability or willingness to utilise the outdoor range provided by free-range housing systems, thereby reducing the potential welfare advantages of this type of housing.
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Provenance not commissioned; externally peer reviewed
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