Department of Animal Environment and Health, Unit of Animal Welfare, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Box 7068, Uppsala, Sweden; Department of Disease Control and Epidemiology, Section of Epidemiological Methods, Swedish National Veterinary Institute, 751 89, Uppsala, Sweden. Electronic address: [Email]
After the ban of battery cages in 1988, a welfare control programme for laying hens was developed in Sweden. Its goal was to monitor and ensure that animal welfare was not negatively affected by the new housing systems. The present observational study provides an overview of the current welfare status of commercial layer flocks in Sweden and explores the complexity of welfare aspects by investigating and interpreting the inter-relationships between housing system, production type (i.e. organic or conventional), facilities, management and animal welfare indicators. For this purpose, a machine learning procedure referred to as structure discovery was applied to data collected through the welfare programme during 2010-2014 in 397 flocks housed in 193 different farms. Seventeen variables were fitted to an Additive Bayesian Network model. The optimal model was identified by an exhaustive search of the data iterated across incremental parent limits, accounting for prior knowledge about causality, potential over-dispersion and clustering. The resulting Directed Acyclic Graph shows the inter-relationships among the variables. The animal-based welfare indicators included in this study - flock mortality, feather condition and mite infestation - were indirectly associated with each other. Of these, severe mite infestations were rare (4% of inspected flocks) and mortality was below the acceptable threshold (< 0.6%). Feather condition scored unsatisfactory in 21% of the inspected flocks; however, it seemed to be only associated to the age of the flock, ruling out any direct connection with managerial and housing variables. The environment-based welfare indicators - lighting and air quality - were an issue in 5 and 8% of the flocks, respectively, and showed a complex inter-relationship with several managerial and housing variables leaving room for several options for intervention. Additive Bayesian Network modelling outlined graphically the underlying process that generated the observed data. In contrast to ordinary regression, it aimed at accounting for conditional independency among variables, facilitating causal interpretation.