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Ensure your cage-free housing is future-proof

Since 2016, we have witnessed a wave of cage-free egg commitments from many of the world’s most influential food companies, starting in the US with McDonald’s (2015) and rippling out to over 200 US companies, including Walmart, the world’s largest retailer

Pledges in Europe soon followed, and included the remaining UK supermarkets selling caged eggs (Tesco, Aldi, Morrisons, Iceland, Lidl and Asda), 7 out of the 8 leading supermarkets in France, and food service giants Sodexo, Compass Group and Elior Group – all pledging to move to a cage free egg supply by 2025 or sooner.

Many of the companies made global commitments, recognising that caged systems for laying hens are outdated, unwanted, do not deliver a good enough quality of life for hens – and are therefore on their way out.

Producers need to INVEST IN THE BEST

Future-proofing investment is critical to commercial sustainability and also involves preparing for upcoming issues, such as the need to operate without beak trimming and maintaining good feather coverage, and the need to improve keel bone condition.

Companies now need to work with their suppliers and invest in production systems that are fit for purpose to ensure that the animals experience a good quality of life, and fit for the future too by meeting the growing demand for cage-free eggs.

Laying hens are gregarious animals with elaborate social behaviours based on group structure in a flock. In the wild they spend much of their time searching for food, foraging and scratching, maintaining their plumage condition via dustbathing and preening, and perching in trees at night to avoid predators.

They also exhibit a thorough nest building repertoire from careful nest selection and inspection, to settling and laying their eggs followed by cackling and re-joining the flock.

Producers now need to invest in the best systems to ensure they satisfy the wants and needs of the hens, so they not only have good physical condition and health, but good mental wellbeing and are able to express their repertoire of natural behaviours.

New systems also need to be able to operate without beak trimming with little or no feather pecking and to demonstrate low levels of keel bone fractures.

Important factors to consider in house design are:

  • The provision of sufficient space to live – the maximum density permitted in the EU for barn and free range systems is 9 birds/m2, but reducing this to 7 birds/m2 can significantly benefit the hens – giving them more space to move freely.
  • Providing sufficient enrichment materials to occupy the hens such as foraging, pecking and dustbathing substrates, and plenty of perching space.
  • Providing different functional spaces - e.g. separate day and night quarters, with high perches for resting, plenty of nest boxes, and separate activity zones for dustbathing, foraging and scratching; or at least access to a veranda and natural light.
  • Free range systems should have good shade and shelter to encourage outdoor ranging, and a variety of herbs, shrubs, and grasses to satisfy the foraging needs of the hens.
  • It’s also important that the pullet rearing house is similar in design to the laying house as this allows the young hens to get accustomed to perching – especially jumping on and off so they don’t injure themselves. They will also be less fearful of their new surroundings when moved into the laying house.

Why Combination (‘combi’) systems are not fit for purpose

Combination (‘combi’) or convertible housing systems for laying hens feature aspects of both aviaries and conventional cages.

They are multi-tiered structures that have doors so although birds can roam when the doors are open, the system converts into a caged system when the doors are closed.

These systems are promoted as offering management and production benefits, and are marketed to maximize stocking density and have the ability to be operated in total confinement if market pressures around cage-free production change.

However, these systems are not suitable alternative cage free systems because:

  • The birds can be confined in cages either routinely or permanently, causing frustration and limiting the movement of the hens.
  • Stocking density is comparable to conventional systems so do not provide any more space to live.
  • Key features and equipment to encourage important behaviours such as nesting and scratching are lacking.
  • Movement through the system (within tiers, between tiers, and between rows) is restricted.
  • Selected access systems confine hens to particular areas within the tiers, when they should have access to the full system at all times.

Much of the restrictions/limitations noted above also apply to intensive multi-tier or COMPACT systems.

Half-caged systems, combi-systems, or routinely closing aviaries, and highly intensive COMPACT multi-tier systems, compromise the welfare of the hen and present reputational and commercial investment risk. They are an unwise investment in a system that may be outdated and outlawed well before the end of its commercial life-span.

We advise companies not to invest in these systems, or to modify any existing combi-systems and to invest in well-designed aviary systems as a minimum.

Compassion will continue to work with industry to ensure companies develop systems that are truly cage-free. 

Find out more about what represents a good design for cage-free housing here or read the 'Fit for Purpose-Fit for Future' cage-free summary here

Some good examples of barn systems which are operating without beak trimming can be found here: