Summary of Welfare
Recently, there have been questions related to the adoption of furnished cages for laying hens in
Canada, rather than transitioning all birds to cage-free systems. First, I’d like to establish a fact of which
many people are not aware: Animal activists are not interested in reforming farming practices to improve animal welfare. Activists are against the use of animals by humans and are opposed to the use
of animals for their meat, milk, eggs, or fiber. They feel this is a morally defensible position, and usually comes from a legitimate place of caring for animals, but taking recommendations on the proper way to farm from a group of people who could never support ANY kind of farming is a fool’s errand. No matter how well animals are cared for or provided for on a farm, activists will always find fault and try to discredit the practices, because they disagree with the fundamental idea of livestock farming.
History of Conventional Housing/Cages
With respect to housing systems for laying hens, conventional or battery cages, which are wire enclosures that provide small social groups of chickens (usually 6-8 per cage), abundant access to food and water, and separation of birds from their droppings have been the standard housing system in North America since World War Two. This type of housing provides excellent disease control, efficient
feed conversion, and actually the smallest environmental footprint and the most inexpensive eggs. These advantages have come at the cost of birds’ abilities to perform activities that satisfy strong behavioural urges that are important to them. As our food system had become more reliable and affordable, the public has questioned whether birds experiencing this level of movement restriction and
frustration can have an acceptable level of welfare. Animal welfare is an important motivation for farmers and professionals that help farmers look after all agricultural animals, including laying hens.
National Farm Animal Care Council Report
In 2017, the National Farm Animal Care Council released the Canadian Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Pullets and Laying Hens. An extensive scientific literature review was done by a committee of animal welfare experts who developed a report on the most up-to-date knowledge of welfare requirements of laying hens. This report was delivered to a code development committee which was a group of experts from the poultry industry, farmers, animal welfare experts, veterinarians, and the government.
The code development committee decided that conventional cages restricted the behaviour of chickens too much for acceptable welfare and should be phased out despite the excellent provision of health, and production of safe, inexpensive eggs. The Code of Practice committee decided that furnished cages (which house 30-60 hens), aviary housing, or free-run housing provide welfare conditions that are considered acceptable. Aviary and free-run housing may or may not include outdoor access. All housing strategies have strengths and trade-offs, but each provides for the multitude of needs of hens in a way that provides good welfare.
Enriched Housing/Furnished Cages
Animal activists are campaigning that the Canadian system has not moved to house all our hens in cage-free systems, claiming that furnished cages do not provide acceptable living conditions for chickens. The
reality is that furnished cages provide hens with the ability to lay eggs in a nest, perch, and forage on small scratching areas. They also provide excellent bird health and air quality due to the separation of birds from their droppings and limit the amount of aggression and cannibalism because of the relatively small
Free Run/Aviary/Cage Free Housing
Free-run and aviary systems allow the bird more freedom of movement, and better opportunities to do activities of their choosing. There is more chance to move vertically, and the opportunity to forage and dustbathe is improved versus what is provided in furnished cages. This freedom comes at a measurable cost to bird health and physical well-being. Laying hens are clumsy flyers and bone fractures are extremely common in non-caged housing, with upwards of 80% of the birds suffering at least one fracture in most cases. Because the litter in cage-free housing is made primarily of feces, the amount of dust is very high when the litter is kept dry. If the litter is allowed to become damp to control dust, there is the risk of high ammonia levels and acidic conditions that cause foot lesions, lameness, and bumblefoot. Access to litter also increases the risk of diseases and parasite infections not seen much in caged housing systems. Because of the large group sizes in cage-free housing, birds have more aggressive interactions to establish and re-establish pecking orders as birds interact with new flock members. Aggression,
cannibalism and suffocation due to piling are some of the major reasons that mortality rates in cage free housing are much higher than the mortality rates in furnished cages.
Animal Health & Welfare
It has always been obvious that animal health is a crucial component of animal welfare. Both consumers and people involved in caring for agricultural animals recognize and are putting more emphasis on mental stimulation and freedom as a component of animal welfare as well. With current technology and best management practices, the fact remains that the more you provide for freedom and mental stimulation, the more you negatively impact physical health. A group chosen for their expertise in animal welfare, health, and management concluded that furnished cages and cage-free systems are equally able to provide good welfare and recommended that both housing systems be acceptable ways to keep laying hens. It seems obvious that this decision should carry more weight than the opinion of a group of people who disagree with the fundamental idea of livestock farming and will ultimately not support the keeping of laying hens in any type of housing system, regardless of how conscientiously farmers care for their birds.
Mike The Chicken Vet