The Future of Egg Farming?

I spent this afternoon working with a group of researchers at the university laying hen barn, teaching some students about how normal chickens act and look.  The point was how to examine the hens to look for health issues that might impact their welfare and to compare the impacts of different housing systems.  This in itself is not that far removed from what I do…..what made today cool for me was that I got to see chickens in a new type of cage.  A new technology that helps provide more complete behaviour opportunities than regular cages, but still offers all the welfare benefits that cages provide.

The new type of "furnished" cage....no sofas or TVs, just the chicken-centric stuff

I am excited to be involved with projects like this, and others that are pushing the envelope with respect to laying hen farming.   The new technology…furnished cages….has huge potential to improve welfare and still keep eggs safe and affordable for consumers.  The issues are complicated and involved, but I would (and have…often) argue that furnished cages can provide the best possible welfare currently available for laying hens.  And there are some truly smart, educated people who agree with me.  In fact, these cages have been evaluated by the most accomplished animal welfare experts, and have been approved and endorsed by all of the ones I have met or talked to….and I’ve met and talked with a great many of them.  

Furnished cages in action in Europe

There is some question as to whether these fancy cages will be able to do what they are purported to do….given Ontario’s climate, feed types, labour availability, etc.  That’s what the research project today was about….the university is evaluating the feasibility of these cages.  You see…new technology is the same, no matter what field it is in.   Electric cars…..enviromentally friendly homes….today, there are almost no people who would argue that they are not progressive, valuable, and a trend of the future.  They are also as rare as hens teeth (pun intended).  Why?  Because they are expensive and unproven.  Look at big screen TV’s…..5 years ago, they were cutting edge, and only the wealthy and risk tolerant types would buy them.

Birds-eye view...perches, dustbaths and nest areas are the Mariott of hen housing!

That was for a TV….maybe a $5000 investment.  These furnished cages will cost the average farmer around $250,000 MORE than regular cages, when he is refurnishing his barn.  You can imagine that these guys wanting to know that this new scheme for looking after hens is all it’s cracked up to be (I got this pun thing NAILED!).   If the research works out, I know that the farmers in Ontario will jump towards the new technology if it means better care for their hens.   I’ve discussed the technology and the costs with several interested farmers…..if we can show that the hens get the welfare benefits that have been described for the furnished cages, they will absorb the extra investment. 

Soooo….the egg-heads at the university will try to validate the claims made by the equipment salesmen, and progress will be made that will actually improve the welfare of laying hens.  It is really cool that I have positioned myself to have a front row seat to see it happen.  I will be one of those old curmudgeons saying “I remember when……”

Mike the Chicken Vet

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2 responses to “The Future of Egg Farming?

  1. I have been enamored with the idea of furnished cages since I first learned of them undergrad. I am currently in veterinary school and plan on working in the poultry industry (Here’s hoping I can get into a post-DVM program). Would there be anyway to retrofit normal battery cages to offset the price for a producer? At this point I think it is either that or promote tax breaks/ subsidies for farmers who use furnished cages.

    • Hi Molly;
      I also am excited about the implementation of the technology of furnished cages. They seem (to me) to be the best compromise of health and behaviour that is currently available. There is no way to retro-fit a regular cage with furnishings, since they aren`t tall enough or large enough to allow for the perch or nest. Companies are putting in enrichable cages, but these are really just furnished cages without the furnishings. Furnished cages are actually not very much more expensive than conventional cages….the cost is in increasing the space allowance from 60ish square inches to 124 square inches.
      The funny thing is, even with the massive increase in up-front cost, recouping the money is not out of the question. Our economic systems are different (here in Canada, furnished cages are almost certainly economically feasible), but the increase in cost per dozen eggs, spread over the 20 year life span of the barn, and the 25-26 dozen eggs produced per hen per year, is actually very small….say $0.30 per dozen (this is a generous estimate). People will buy eggs at $.30 more, without blinking, as long as (and this is the crucial part) they are still the cheapest eggs on offer. If the entire industry can co-ordinate the implementation, consumption will not be affected….if some people put in furnished cages, and others still sell regular eggs for cheaper, the furnished cages will have a hard time catching on.
      Good luck with your career….if you have any questions, I`d be glad to give you my two cents worth of advice…
      Mike

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