The fantastic run of cage free egg commitments from leading food companies in the UK clearly signals the beginning of the end for caged eggs. As producers make the transition to cage-free, it is vital that these systems are designed and managed to provide hens with a rich and stimulating environment, and a life that is truly worth living. This article highlights the key features of cage-free systems that should be incorporated.
A good laying hen housing system should allow for the expression of a wide range of behaviours. Perching, foraging and dustbathing are all behaviours that need to be fully provided for. Feather pecking behaviour must be minimised, not through mutilation of the beak but by providing the appropriate environment and good stockmanship. Rearing pullets in the same system as they will experience when in lay is also a vital part of ensuring good design and translates into real benefits for the birds (see our case study on this).
Higher welfare housing systems should include:
- Functional space for birds to perform specific behaviours including perching, dust bathing, scratching, foraging and roosting up high at night
- A veranda (covered outdoor area) which is essential for all barn systems and is a very good addition for free-range systems particularly for bad weather days
- Adequate space to easily navigate the shed and reach any popholes
- Nipple drinkers and mashed food to reduce feather pecking risk
- Solid flooring in the shed with at least one third of the floor covered in dry friable litter
- Perching space with at least 15cm per bird
- Enclosed nest boxes with at least 1 per 5 birds
- Colonies of no more than 4,000 birds
- Shed enrichments such as string, hanging CDs and straw bales
A free-range (or organic) system, with provision of an outdoor ranging area, provides the highest welfare potential and enhances the opportunity for birds to express their full behavioural repertoire. To maximise the ranging behaviour of the birds (i.e. the extent to which they utilise the outdoor area) enrichment on the range is vital, and should include trees, bushes, and artificial shelters with a sand floor for dustbathing.
Compassion highly recommends to producers and companies that they invest in a free range or Rondeel system. As consumer demand for better animal welfare continues to build year on year, investing in a free range system with the highest welfare potential is most likely to represent a future-proofed investment.
In any system, regular scoring of welfare outcome measures is needed to identify any welfare issues and to set targets for improvements. Recommended measures include:
- Disease incidence – Recording the incidence of diseased or injured birds in the flock
- Keel bone fractures – Recording the prevalence of keel (breast) bone fractures
- Feather cover - Assessing the prevalence and severity of feather loss caused by feather or aggressive pecking behaviour
- Flock behaviour – Recording the flock’s reaction to people
- Mortality - Recording the number of birds dead or culled and the causes
For further information and support please see our latest guide on higher welfare systems for laying hens and other technical resources on laying hen welfare or contact the Food Business team at Compassion in World Farming.