Larvae feeding could help solve laying hen welfare challenge

By Jane Byrne

- Last updated on GMT

© Gettyimages/ko_orn
© Gettyimages/ko_orn

Related tags insects black soldier fly larvae layers hens

New research, sponsored by Dutch insect protein producer Protix, indicates that feeding older, non‐beak trimmed laying hens live Black Soldier Fly (BSF) larvae has a positive effect on the feather condition of such birds.

This approach could provide a possible solution to reduce feather pecking in hens, says the insect protein company. 

Live insects, including BSF larvae (Hermetia illucens​), are already approved for poultry feeding in Europe.

The results of the study​, undertaken at Schothorst Feed Research in the Netherlands, confirm that live BSF larvae can be used in combination with local plant proteins to successfully replace soy in diets of older laying hens, said Protix. It has an egg brand, OERei, that is based on the feeding of live larvae to hens. 

Schothorst researchers, Francesc Molist and Laura Star, evaluated the effects of including live larvae on production performance, egg quality, behavior and feather condition of older laying hens. They said, to the best of their knowledge, there is no peer reviewed literature studying the inclusion of live BSF larvae in laying diets. This is the first such study.

Speaking to this publication, Dr Aman Paul, director of product development at Protix, said the findings on feather pecking reduction were surprising: “We were not expecting that the feather score would improve to this extent.”

Laying hens learn to peck at young age. But, as the hens age, feather pecking is magnified to the degree that it can cause injury to the birds, said Dr Paul. “In a lot of countries, older layer hens are in production beyond 75 weeks of age. This makes ensuring the welfare of old laying hens more challenging and is why we chose that age bird on which to focus on in the study.”

Such an improvement in feather score seen in the trial can be linked to the fact that larvae-fed birds spend more time pecking at larvae than at each other and also because they are simultaneously accessing the nutrients contained within the larvae, said Dr Paul.

The larvae are grown in GMP+ and SecureFeed certified facility under HACCP conditions, which ensures zero pathogenic counts and boosts the nutritional profile of the larvae, he stressed.

The study also demonstrated that provision of live BSF larvae could facilitate hens in expressing their natural feeding behavior, whereby they eat more in the morning and rest in the afternoon, as opposed to birds on soy fed diets that would tend to eat throughout the day, said the Protix representative. 

The study

This research investigated the effects of dispensing live H. illucens​ larvae to non-beak trimmed older laying hens on production performance, behavior and welfare.

Control treatment hens were provided a commercial diet, while larvae treatment hens were provided live H. illucens​ larvae, using a special dispenser, on top of a soy-free diet.

Older laying hens (Dekalb White; 65 weeks of age) arrived at Schothorst Feed Research in the Netherlands in the last week of December 2018. These hens were allocated to aviary pens with wood shavings on the floor and allowed to adapt (acclimatize) for a period of 2 weeks. Hens were 67 weeks of age during the initiation of the trial. Before arriving at the experimental facilities hens were housed in an aviary system with 330 birds per pen, outlined the team.

They said the feeding trials were realized in two identical houses that were windowless, artificially lighted, and centrally heated (target temperature: 20 ± 2 °C).

Laying hens were accommodated in aviary pens of 1.5 m length (including laying nest), 2m wide and 2.3m in height. Hens were accommodated at a density of 22 hens/pen. Pens were equipped with perches (approx. 18 cm/hen), a feeder bin (ad libitum feed, approx. 5 cm/hen feeder space) and six nipple drinkers per pen (ad libitum water). Bedding consisted of fresh wood shavings. 

Feather condition, production performance and egg quality were measured during the initiation (67 weeks age) and termination (78 weeks age) of the trial. The behavior of birds was monitored using video recording. Feed conversion ratio, body weight gain and egg laying parameters were similar for both treatments. The hens were not vaccinated during the trial, added the researchers.

At termination of the trial, they found that the larvae-fed hens exhibited better feather condition in comparison to control hens. Behavioral observations indicated that larvae provision influenced the number of birds on the floor during morning and afternoon hours.

In conclusion, the team said live H​. illucens​ larvae could successfully replace soy in diets of older laying hens, in combination with local plant proteins. Provisioning of these insects also had a positive effect on the feather condition of laying hens with intact beaks.

A major prompt for the research was the need to bolster the scientific data behind the company’s live BSF larvae, said Dr Paul.

Protix was only the sponsor of the research, in other words, it did not take part in the actual trial work, he said. “We designed the concept of the study, but the feeding trial that was carried out at Schothorst was very much independent,” ​he added. 

The idea of the dispenser used in the trial to distribute the larvae was that it should facilitate the natural behavior of the bird. Protix developed the design of that special dispenser and patented it. “Our objective is to commercialize it as a technical product.” 

Protix works exclusively with one large commercial farmer on its novel egg product, OERei​, which is available in the premium supermarket chains in the Netherlands, namely Albert Heijn, Jumbo and Deen. 


“The farmer feeds Protix larvae to chickens producing OERei brand eggs. Of course, when capacity is reached, we will look for other innovative and forward-looking farmers," ​said the company.

Discussions with retailers outside the Netherlands are ongoing in relation to their stocking the egg brand, it added.

Source: Animals 2020​, 10(2), 216

Title: Gradual Provision of Live Black Soldier Fly (Hermetia illucens) Larvae to Older Laying Hens: Effect on Production Performance, Egg Quality, Feather Condition and Behavior

Authors: F. Molist, L. Star, A. Paul, T. Arsiwalla, R. Leushuis and M. Dalim


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