Playing music to hens: A farmer Q+A

Glenn Haggart manages 64,000 birds at Addington Farm in Lancashire, producing eggs for Stonegate. For four years, he has trialled playing sounds and music in hen sheds and strongly advocates the practice. This year, he will trial this out on a new flock of Dekalb Whites – the first flock to undergo a complete trial. Becky Swinn caught up with him to find out more.

Why did you start introducing music to the bird sheds?

I first came across the idea when I saw a farmer on television preparing his turkeys for bonfire night by slowly adding those sounds into their routine. It was a way of keeping anxiety and stress down and creating a safe environment for the birds. After looking into the existing research, I thought we could introduce something similar as part of a package of changes to increase bird welfare.

Find out more about this field lab. 

How does it work?

Two sheds are set up with sound insulation and two without, as a control. The birds come in from rear around 16 weeks old and are subtly introduced to music to get them used to different sounds and noises over a couple of weeks. We play music at various points throughout the day to help control their routines of feeding and sleeping to avoid any frantic rushes that might stress them. For example, in the morning, they have 25 minutes of music to help wake them up, and in the evening, 40 minutes of music is the signal for them to manoeuvre onto the perches to sleep. Then we play a sort of serene dolphin music whilst they sleep. These sounds create a safe environment for the birds in times that they’d otherwise get stressed from adverse noises like lightning, ventilation turning on, or even shadows created from cloud coverage.

Have you noticed any differences in bird behaviour?

A few years ago, when vets or others visited, the birds weren’t sure of who these strange sounds were coming from, and they’d start cooing from fear. Nowadays, anyone can walk around the shed and the girls don’t mind at all; they’re not even bothered by drilling, because it helps them get used to a range of noises and partially disguises them. Music and sound can also distract the girls if they begin fighting – they quickly forget what they were doing.

The difference has been obvious to me. It’s hard to explain, but when they’re calm and happy, it’s like they are dancing, and when they’re not, you can tell by the high-pitched noise and the squawking going around the shed. So something like Dance of the Valkyries might make them more aggressive.

I haven’t found that music has directly resulted in more eggs, but if you are getting the other essentials right – feed, water, litter, ventilation, red mite control, and so on, it should contribute to higher egg production.

What types of sounds work best?

A lot of research has focussed on particular styles of music, but we’ve found that the trick is to make it as varied as possible. Radio works well because it has different types of music, voices and sound effects, whereas if you just use a set playlist on repeat, the birds will only get used to those sounds.
We have a playlist overlaid with the sounds of people talking, farmyard noises like tractors, sheep, alpacas, birds and rain sounds – noises that the birds hear day to day.

What will you do differently with the new flock?

Our goal with the Dekalb Whites is to take them to 100 weeks, non-beak trimmed and with full feather coverage – the sign of a healthy bird. Taking them to 100 weeks might be a challenge, but as they get older and immunity starts to wear off, being able to instantly relax the birds could enhance and extend their lives.

It took a while for us to get the sound coverage spread across all the sheds and working with Innovative Farmers enabled us to equip the sheds with surround sound to do that. Hens in both the control shed (i.e. no sound), and the shed with sound, will be fed on the same feed package this time, so that is removing one of the variables from the equation, hence why I say this is the first ‘complete’ trial.

What have you learnt about running an on-farm trial?

You need to minimise the amount of variables. At the beginning, we were trying to get too many other things right at the same time.

I have also found that observing behaviour in the moment has been more useful than collecting physical data. By observing, we’ve kind of taken it to a different level, from the basic premise of what existing research said – that classical music is good for hens, to something more proactive and reactive, understanding what range of sounds, music and timings calm the flocks down, what stresses them out and how these affect them in the long term. Every flock is different in what they like – I had one flock that really like Michael Bublé!

What will you explore next?

There’s so much you can explore with music and sound. I’m hoping to monitor how the birds react to adverse sounds at night-time, because a bit like for humans, a good sleep is the most crucial part of their day.

Farmers are concerned about the stress caused by transitioning from rearing to lay. Working with our rearers to introduce quiet sounds into nesting boxes could give young birds something familiar to identify with in the new world they’re in.

Research also shows that the number of floor eggs reduces when music is played in nest boxes because sound attracts them there. This means that your workforce doesn’t need to spend so much time picking up floor eggs and can focus more on farm husbandry, which in turn increases bird welfare.

Share your ideas

Keen to share your ideas on sound and music or find out more? Glenn would love to hear from you – please get in touch with us at info@innovativefarmers.org

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