Chicken expert Dr. Richard Blatchford explains the science and heart behind farm animal standards

Ever since Richard Blatchford, Ph.D., was a little boy, chickens have held a special place in his heart.

But he wouldn’t have guessed that his family’s backyard chickens would eventually spark a career studying chickens and animal behavior science.

“When I was in grade school, I would sit in the chicken coop and read books to the chickens,” Richard said with a laugh. “They’d sit on my lap while I was doing it. I was a little nerdy when I was younger. I probably still am.”

Richard is an Assistant Extension Specialist, specializing in small and industrial-scale poultry, at the University of California, Davis Animal Science Extension.

He’s also a member of Certified Humane’s® Scientific Committee, providing advice and direction for our Farm Animal Standards. The organization relies on his scientific expertise to maintain the best care practices for laying hens and broiler chickens.

As a scientist, Richard loves that he is always learning. He loves that new knowledge can inform better decisions for farm animals.

“In animal welfare, really small changes you make actually have a really big impact, given the sheer numbers of animals involved,” Richard said.

The strength of the Certified Humane® program lies in its high standards and how transparent those standards are, even as the science changes, he said.

“It’s easy for a consumer to go onto the website and see what the standards are and then know that these birds were housed under these particular standards,” Richard said. “I think that’s great.”

Monkeys, tarantulas, and whooping cranes

Growing up just outside of Boston, Richard’s family was fortunate enough to have space for a backyard chicken coop, despite their urban surroundings. What began with 4 chickens when Richard was in third grade grew to almost 40 chickens by the time he graduated high school.

Richard began studying as a premed student at Hiram College in northern Ohio, thinking that the only career path for someone who loves animals was a veterinarian. While earning his bachelor’s degree in psychobiology, Richard had opportunities to work with the college’s colony of brown capuchin monkeys, with local wildlife including turtles and frogs at school’s field station, and even with a large group of tarantulas.

However, Richard’s true interest was birds. For two years after graduating college, Richard interned at the International Crane Foundation in Barbaroo, Wisconsin. He worked with captive whooping crane populations with the goal of reintroducing the endangered species back to the wild.

“I really enjoyed doing that, but the big picture was very unsatisfying because while you feel like you’re making a big difference day-to-day, there’s still habitat loss, and birds die after they get reintroduced,” Richard said.

His next internship was at a zoo. While he loved working hands-on with the animals, he ultimately wanted more to do more than feeding them and scooping poop.

He wanted to get into research.

You can work with chickens for a living?!

While exploring master’s programs, Richard learned about the animal behavior program at University of California Davis — and Joy Mench, Ph.D.

Joy didn’t work with exotic animals, but she did study poultry.

“That was what I was interested in, and I thought there could be a lot of transferable skills. And I do like chickens,” Richard said.

Joy happened to be one of Certified Humane’s founding scientists. Richard learned about animal welfare and how that applied to farm animals.

“When I realized you could actually work with chickens for a living, I was hooked,” he said.

He had found his calling — and a home at UC Davis. Richard finished his master’s degree, stayed on to earn his Ph.D, and was immediately offered a postdoc opportunity at the university.

Chicken inspector

While studying at UC Davis, Joy told him that Certified Humane® was looking for poultry inspectors and recommended him for the job. From 2008 to 2015, Richard worked as a poultry inspector for Certified Humane®.

As an inspector, he loved all the contact he had with the birds. He loved witnessing how farmers overcame challenges and developed innovative housing systems for their chickens.

During each inspection, Richard’s job was to report where farmers were not meeting Certified Humane® Farm Animal Standards for laying hens or broiler chickens.

The standards are designed to encourage farm animals to live how they instinctually desire to behave — not in ways humans think they might. For instance, one of the standards for chickens is to provide environmental enrichment and a stimulating environment. Years ago, Richard would see lots of CDs hung from ceilings of chicken housing.

“I’m not really sure where that idea came from,” Richard said. “Maybe something to peck at?”

He noticed that the chickens never interacted with the CDs. Instead, they tended to stay low to the floor in those houses. Richard wondered if the sunlight reflecting off the CDs was actually frightening the birds — much like how California wineries were using long strips of metallic tape to keep birds away from their grapevines.

“So there were good intentions, but potentially it was causing the birds to actually be fearful. So that’s not a really good type of enrichment,” Richard said.

What chickens prefer

The Certified Humane® program provides direction on what farm animals do want, need, and enjoy, based on studies by scientists like Richard.

“Perching, for instance, is really important for chickens,” Richard said. “They are strongly motivated to go up at night and get height, as an anti-predator defense behavior.”

The correct type of nesting area is also critical. If farmers don’t provide the right nesting box, chickens will find what they like on their own.

“They’ll nest on the floor or in places where it’s really hard to get the egg,” Richard said. “Nests on the floor mean the eggs could be in contact with manure and risk carrying salmonella.”

Instead, suggestions for good environmental enrichment include ramps, which Richard said chickens really enjoy; perches appropriate for the size of the birds; pecking blocks; and access to living vegetation.

Along with annual inspections, Richard would occasionally inspect chicken facilities after a complaint, sometimes after an animal rights group reported a concern about a specific farm or operation.

“In some cases, I’ve inspected the facility and provided some concrete evidence that would refute or back up what the animal rights folks were saying — wherever the scientific evidence led,” he said.

Scientific Advisor

In 2015, Richard accepted a position as an Extension Specialist at UC Davis. Since that role involves advising and guiding chicken farmers and large-scale chicken producers directly, he resigned as an inspector for Certified Humane to avoid a potential conflict of interest.

Instead, Certified Humane® asked him to join its Scientific Committee, where Richard has served ever since.

Where an inspector uses scientific knowledge to observe and report on specific operations, members of the committee use their expertise to advise organizational leadership on the practical applications of the Farm Animal Standards.

This might be prompted by an uncommon set of circumstances at a particular farm or ranch. Committee members may weigh in on a tricky case, based on an inspector’s report from the field. Organization leaders depend on the committee’s scientific expertise to make a final determination on whether a farm or ranch meets the standards or needs to make improvements.

The committee is also responsible for revising the Farm Animal Standards when new research or updated knowledge changes what the scientific community knows about best practices for animal welfare. As animal scientists learn more about a species, then Certified Humane® is able to create better and kinder standards for those animals.

How new research improves standards

Over the years, Richard has seen the standards change as scientists learn what is truly important for animals.

One big difference is moving away from resource-based measures of welfare, he said. Before, the assumption was that if you measure the environment — the feeding space, perch space, stocking density — and meet the threshold, then your birds are in good health.

“Now we know those measures are not as linearly linked as we’d like them to be,” Richard said.

Instead, standards are moving towards animal-based measures. That involves looking at the animals and seeing what their response is to the environment where they live.

For example, inspectors look for evidence of aggression that could mean the chickens are competing for food instead of finding plenty to eat. They look at the health of the birds: How is their feather coverage? Do they have any foot lesions? Inspectors will pick up a chicken to inspect it for parasites such as mites.

“It’s trickier because those measures tend to be more laborious. They take longer, and often you have to handle the animals. But it’s a much better measure,” Richard said. “I think that is a positive thing.”

The science and heart of raising farm animals

Richard loves that his input can help large production companies change their operations to benefit the lives of so many animals.

That’s why he loves his work as an extension specialist. In that role, he often helps backyard chicken owners incorporate realistic practices into their own small flocks.

Though they invest in chickens for their food production, backyard chicken owners tend to view their flock as companion animals like their beloved pets. But chickens are different from dogs and cats. Just like Richard reading books to his chickens in his youth, many flock owners don’t realize the health risk their chickens can pose to their own house and food supply.

Fortunately, there are easy solutions that significantly lower the risk of salmonella: washing hands after handling chickens and dedicating a specific pair of shoes to wear around the chickens, for example.

Offering practical suggestions to backyard chicken owners mirrors what Richard does for Certified Humane® — combining scientific research with a desire to do better on behalf of farm animals.

Richard’s love and respect for animals is at the heart of it all.