Building a better chicken coop: How science can improve animal health

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Janice Siegford knew she wanted to work with animals, but her journey to MSU was anything but direct.

The Montana native went from one end of the country to the other and through many different fields before she finally arrived in East Lansing. Circuitous as the road was, she is the first to say that each step taught her something important.

Siegford, an associate professor of animal behavior and welfare in the Department of Animal Science, studies animal behavior to develop and implement safe animal housing systems that improve quality of life.

She was introduced to the world of animal science through the classes required by her major at Cornell: communication. Siegford was so fascinated by the subject that it dominated much of her time there. “The people in the Animal Science Department thought I was one of their majors because of all the time I spent there,” Siegford recalled. “I wanted a job that involved animals and behavior. Science communication seemed like a good place to start, because it helped people understand animal science and how it worked.” After a year writing technical manuals and press releases, Siegford realized she wanted more.

This leg of the journey took her west to the University of Idaho, where she pursued a master’s in zoology. Her experience and talent for communication would continue to be an advantage in unexpected ways. “My professor said it was easier to teach someone how to do science than how to write,” Siegford said. During this time she had her first experience with animal behavior.

The National Institute for Aging was looking for an alternative animal model to mice that better reflected the impact of aging on human cognition. Siegford tested the memory and learning ability of parakeets, which age much slower than mice relative to their body size. She found that while older birds were slower to learn something than their youthful counterparts, they were also more likely to retain it. This piqued her interest in the outcomes of cognition and took her further west to Washington State University and a doctoral program in animal neuroscience.

“Although my project was focused on how motor neurons develop in the spinal cord, I learned a lot about how the brain drove behavior,” Siegford said. “Toward the end, I worked with a woman involved tangentially with animal welfare issues and found that I wanted to move in the direction of working with animals for animals.”

Bringing it All Together

That new focus drew Siegford east, to MSU, where today she applies all of her experience in developing systems that maximize animal welfare while still serving the needs of farms. Her work includes pigs, dairy and beef cattle, and most recently, laying hens.

With support from the Michigan Alliance for Animal Agriculture, a partnership between MSU and Michigan’s animal agriculture industry, Siegford and her students study the impact of enclosures that allow hens more space to roost, eat and move about on their health, safety and well-being.

In the past, chicken enclosures were designed to optimize farm economics, food safety and chicken population management. This meant keeping chickens in small enclosures that protected them from some of their more dangerous behaviors like panic attacks or establishing a literal, violent pecking order. It inhibited their ability to engage, however, in other beneficial behaviors. In exploring new enclosure types, Siegford hopes to balance the needs of the farm and the safety of the chickens with the chickens’ own behavioral health.

“Our needs and theirs aren’t in perfect synchronicity,” she said. “If we can develop a system that allows chickens to engage in more chicken-like behaviors, like dust baths and freely perching and nesting, we can reduce stress on each individual and, therefore, boost the overall production of the farm.”

While the road may have been winding, Siegford is utilizing every step of the journey to effect a real, positive change in agriculture, from studying animal behavior to communicating those behaviors and their implications to farmers. For students she has this advice:

“Learning how to be a researcher, how to do good, sound science, is more important than the specific subject matter. Clearly, my projects weren’t building toward one thing, they were broad, but they each taught me important skills I can apply to my passion now.”

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