Preparing for the challenges and opportunities of life: effects of early experience on adaptive plasticity in laying hens

Last changed: 14 September 2021
Photo: Small chicken eating from a trough

Farm animals are often reared in one type of environment but housed as adults in another. When moved, a lack of skill needed to adapt rapidly to the new environment can compromise welfare. “Adaptive developmental plasticity” is a phenomenon whereby early experience shapes later responses, influencing adaptive capacities and stress resilience.

We hypothesize that exposure to a diverse and stimulating early environment will prepare chicks to better cope with challenges and exploit opportunities later in life as adult laying hens. We shall systematically varying the predictability and controllability of environmental enrichments of types that could be implemented in commercial practice during the brooding period (e.g. varying litter materials and perch designs).

Photo: Young hen standing in straw

Their effects on behavioural, physiological, immunological and cognitive development will be compared at different ages. Besides identifying how best to prepare chicks to cope with future stressors (so minimizing reductions in welfare), this study will investigate how developmental plasticity can enhance positive aspects of welfare, such as exploration skills that help hens quickly find food and use nest boxes and other new resources when moved to the laying house.