Laying hens stand at door of barn Laying hens stand at door of barn

Improving Layer Hen Welfare with Better Bone Health

Washington, DC

  • Advanced Animal Systems

Keel bone damage, deviations or fractures in a bird’s breastbone, is a prevalent problem among commercial laying hens. This damage may be painful for hens and can be linked to the number and quality of their eggs. Keel bone damage is a multifactor problem attributed to a combination of housing design, genetics, feed and nutrition, behavior, rearing practices and other issues.

To address this welfare and production challenge, the Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research (FFAR) and Open Philanthropy created the Layer Hen Keel Bone Health Program to provide funds to support global, cross-disciplinary teams that use evidence-based approaches to measurably reduce the incidence of keel bone damage. This program expands upon previous FFAR funding for keel bone research. The program is awarding two grants totaling $2,989,012 to researchers at the University of Edinburgh and the University of California, Davis (UC Davis) who are taking innovative genetic and interdisciplinary approaches to investigating the multi-factorial causes of keel bone damage. Several matching funders provided support for a total $6,990,477 investment.

Improving the welfare of animals is a critical component of animal husbandry, and keel bone damage is a serious threat to the wellbeing of layer hens. These research projects are helping ensure humane treatment and a better quality of life for the animals that meet our food and nutrition needs. Nikki Dutta
Scientific Program Officer

FFAR and Open Philanthropy are awarding the following grants:

Professor Ian Dunn

University of Edinburgh

Consortium or Matching Funder: Hy-Line International; Lohmann Breeders GmbH; Open Philanthropy; Roslin Institute, University of Edinburgh; Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences; Universidad de Granada; University of Alberta; University of Guelph

The research consortium is using genetic selection to address keel damage. The team is using x-ray images and machine learning to refine and validate the measurements of bone quality and keel damage in living hens to inform the selection of hens to reduce keel bone damage. This work is also examining if breeding programs for improved keel health need to vary depending upon poultry housing design.

Moreover, prior research has highlighted the role of age at puberty on bone strength. The consortium’s work is further exploring this relationship by manipulating diet and light to delay puberty and measuring the resulting effects on bone quality. They are also determining whether a diet that produces lower homocysteine, an amino acid, increases collagen strength and improves keel quality.

“Keel bone damage is a particular problem as non-cage systems are in increasing use across the world,” said Dunn. “This project seeks to enable genetic selection directly for the keel bone itself, as well as novel nutritional approaches and the influence of the timing of when hens start to lay eggs on their bone quality.”

Dr. Huaijun Zhou

UC Davis

Matching Funders: Hy-Line International; Open Philanthropy

Zhou’s research is bringing an interdisciplinary approach to the complex, multi-faceted challenge of keel bone damage. The research team is aiming to decrease the occurrence of keel bone damage by examining the birds’ housing environments and assessing the key relation and role of genetics. The researchers are identifying genetic markers associated with keel bone damage in breeding flocks raised under different housing environments and improving genetic selection to promote resistance to keel bone fractures. They are also evaluating the effects of housing design interventions on the development, type and prevalence of keel bone damage. Finally, the researchers are exploring alternative housing designs and conducting economic analyses to determine the costs and gains from the proposed adjustments to breeding and housing designs.

Zhou is the principal investigator for the UC Davis research and a professor of animal science in the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences

“Like many other economically important traits in poultry, keel bone damage is a complex issue affected by genetic and environmental factors, such as type of housing system,” said Zhou. “By partnering with the world’s leading poultry breeding company, Hy-Line International, we are thrilled with the opportunity to apply advanced genetic, genomic and precision livestock farming technologies to sustainably improve poultry well-being and production.”

Collaborating with Zhou at UC Davis are animal science associate professors Dr. Maja Makagon, Dr. Richard Blatchford and Dr. Hao Cheng; and agricultural economist and distinguished professor Dr. Daniel Sumner. The UC Davis team will partner with Dr. Yang Zhao, an associate professor at University of Tennessee and Dr. Danny Lubritz, Dr. Anna Wolc, Dr. Petek Settar, Dr. Kaylee Roland and Dr. Luke Kramer at Hy-Line International.

“Hy-Line International is proud to be collaborating with Dr. Huaijun Zhou and his team at UC Davis on this hen keel bone health project,” said Lubritz, Hy-Line International’s director of research and development. “We believe this research will deliver tools for the early detection and genetic improvement of keel bone health in cage and cage free settings. Hy-Line International can integrate this information into its genomic program to simultaneously improve egg production, egg quality and bird welfare.”


Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research

The Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research (FFAR) builds public-private partnerships to fund bold research addressing big food and agriculture challenges. FFAR was established in the 2014 Farm Bill to increase public agriculture research investments, fill knowledge gaps and complement the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s research agenda. FFAR’s model matches federal funding from Congress with private funding, delivering a powerful return on taxpayer investment. Through collaboration and partnerships, FFAR advances actionable science benefiting farmers, consumers and the environment.

Connect: @FoundationFAR

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