Young chickens at a feeder (ISU photo)

Anyone who’s ever entertained a cat with a laser pointer will understand the premise behind the latest research at Iowa State University.

ISU animal science professor Liz Bobeck found a way to motivate chickens to move around using specially-designed lasers. They project a red dot onto the floor of the pens to stimulate the birds’ predatory instincts, encouraging them to be more active.

“It gives them something else to do in their day-to-day tasks,” Bobeck says. “It gives them a choice to have an option to play, which I think is something that is kind of neat. From a performance and welfare benefit, they are up and moving. They are able to grow faster, better, stronger bones. They have better feed conversion.”

That’s especially important because as the chickens approach market weight, they often become more sedentary, but the lasers keep them hopping.

“Our initial work was for four minutes, four times a day,” Bobeck says, “and we move the lasers in kind of a random pattern so the birds feel like they’re chasing something that would be moving at the speed of a bug or an insect that they might like to chase anyway.”

An initial concern was that if the birds exercised more, they’d lose weight, but Bobeck says they’re finding the opposite, that the broilers saw improved weight gain and bone density.

“When the birds get up and play with the laser, they actually go to the feeder and to the water, so they spend more time eating and drinking and walking, and then actually growing,” Bobeck says, “and this is translating to really cool benefits as far as meat quality goes.”

Laser pointers always carry warnings about how dangerous it can be to gaze into the high-intensity light, but Bobeck says none of the test chickens have wound up visually impaired.

“We haven’t found yet that the birds can figure out where the lasers are coming from since they’re moving,” Bobeck says. “But we also have not seen any issues with birds looking into the laser and becoming blind, and it’s also the safest wavelength for humans. So, our goal is to also not harm any person that will be working in the barn.”

ISU is working with a livestock lighting company to eventually take this concept to market.

Radio Iowa