Beak trimming is the removal of part of the top and bottom beak of a bird. It is also called "debeaking", although this term is inaccurate as only part of the beak is removed. It is an animal husbandry practice commonly carried out in the poultry industry. Farm managers have their flock's beak-trimmed to blunt the beaks enough to prevent the occurrence of damaging pecking.

Re-trimming may also be carried out if a bird's beak grows back enough to cause pecking damage. Birds are often re-trimmed at 8-12 weeks of age to avoid this happening. Some non-trimmed adult birds may need trimming if a pecking outbreak occurs.

Why is beak trimming/Treatment done?

Birds seriously get injured through pecking. Beak trimming is performed early in the life of commercial hens to decrease injuries caused by cannibalism, bullying, and feather and vent pecking. Birds naturally peck at the environment and each other to investigate and work out where they fit into the flock (pecking order). This behavior can become a problem in commercial situations and many deaths have been recorded among untrimmed hens. Feather pecking, and cannibalism affects all birds in all production systems. When laying birds are kept in systems that give the opportunity for aggressive birds to contact many other birds, cannibalism and feather pecking can spread rapidly through the flock and result in injuries and mortality. Mortality of up to 25-30% of the flock can occur and cause huge mortality and morbidity problems as well as financial losses to the farmer.

When is beak trimming done?

Infrared beak trimming machine (photo courtesy of Peter Bell)

Beak trimming is carried out at various ages depending on the preference of the farm manager. The most common ages for birds to be beak-trimmed are:

  • Day-old (most common)
  • 5-10 days old
  • 4-6 weeks
  • 8-12 weeks
  • Touch up trim of adult birds (mainly in alternative systems)

Who does beak trimming?

Hot blade beak trimming is performed by contract teams, individual farmers and some large poultry companies. Most birds are trimmed by contract teams. Birds must be beak-trimmed by an accredited beak-trimmer to ensure that nationally agreed standards are maintained, and the welfare of the birds is not compromised. The infrared treatment machine is installed by the supplier and leased by hatcheries. It is monitored and controlled by the supplier via a communication system and on-site computer.

How is beak trimming done?

An infrared beak trimming method using a non-contact, high intensity, infrared energy source to treat the beak tissue, is the most common method now in use. Initially the beak surface remains intact but after a few weeks the sharp hook of the beak erodes. Experiments have also been conducted using lasers for beak trimming, however this technology is not used for beak trimming on farms.

A hot blade beak trimming machine with an electrically heated blade is another method that has been commonly used in the past, now being surpassed by infrared.


Disadvantage of Hot Blade trimming

Advantage of Infrared Beak treatment

Beak trimmers move from farm to farm thus creating a potential biosecurity threat that will result into spread of diseases from one farm to another. This has to do with issues of personal hygiene and equipment cleanliness that are difficult to maintain in the field.

Equipment located in clean hatchery. Staff maintain high levels of biosecurity and the equipment are cleaned and disinfected on daily basis.

Birds can be stressed from catching and restraint on farm.

Settings adjusted easily using key pad on processor. Operation done at the hatchery with minimum stress to the young chicks.

Different set up for equipment is needed when beak trimming different ages of bird, shed type or location.

Equipment located in hatchery.

Physical damage to the birds while being handled for beak-trimming, exposed cauterized wound, potential for bleeding from beak, excessive beak trimming impairing beak function, and insufficient beak trimming resulting in beak regrowth.

A predetermined amount of beak tissue is exposed to a defined amount of infrared energy. The exposed tissues remain intact and there are no open wounds or blood loss.

No records are kept, no quality assurance.

In-house quality assurance program developed and kept by the equipment software.

Records kept on beak trimming quality and bird performance.

If poorly done or inadequately done, re-trimming will be necessary with additional stress.

Re-trimming in the farm is generally unnecessary.

Some birds may be worse done than others with poor quality depending on the state of the contractor.

Quality of trimming is good and uniform.


Summary

When birds are not beak trimmed, increased incidences of mortality and morbidity will occur due to cannibalism. Welfare problems associated with cannibalism can be devastating. When performed correctly to industry standards, beak trimming has advantages. These include reduced:

  • Feather pecking
  • Mortality
  • Vent pecking and prolapse
  • Bullying
  • Stress on the bird

When beak trimming is not done correctly, birds can suffer from:

  1. Reduced ability to eat and drink
  2. Short and long-term stress
  3. Reduced social status