Tag Archives: welfare

Why do we keep Chickens Inside

I have been asked by several different people with very diverse backgrounds as to why we HOUSE chickens. People have a Disney moment every time they see a big fluffy chicken scratching around in a dusty yard, or looking ridiculous eating grass in a beautiful sunny field. These idyllic images should be the goal of “farming” everywhere, and folks wonder why on earth this doesn’t happen.
snow chickenHere, in Ontario, Canada, the most obvious reason is just making its reluctant disappearance. Winter and chickens are not the best of friends. Red Jungle Fowl, the predecessors of all laying hens, evolved as (spoiler alert: check out the name) JUNGLE fowl. Not especially tailored to cold weather. Although some breeds have been developed in the northern climates (like Rhode Island Reds, Couchons and Buff Orpingtons, to name a few), they lay far fewer eggs than the modern crosses we use now on commercial farms. Hens cannot handle cold weather well if they are selected for egg production.
Again, the pressures facing professional farmers is different than backyard chicken keepers. If you have 5 hens, and are used to getting 4 or 5 eggs per day, and get 3 or 4 per day in winter, you will say that they never miss a beat. This is a 20% decrease in production, and will destroy a commercial flock…..if you have 20,000 hens, you would be collecting 4,000 eggs less PER DAY. Either we would have egg shortages in the winter, (if we kept the same number of hens we have now), or a glut in the summer (if we had enough hens to supply enough eggs in the winter).

There are other reasons why chickens need shelter. They like it. Chickens are the ultimate prey animal….they have no weapons, they don’t have great camouflage, they are tasty and low in fat (important for predators who are watching their

Notice how many chickens are venturing out of the safety of the barn.

Notice how many chickens are venturing out of the safety of the barn.

waistlines). Chickens are NOT adventurous, brave or tough….they are, in a word, chicken. It keeps them alive. They have great vision, communicate predator presence very well, are flighty and nervous and very efficiently look for a reason to freak out. Having an enclosed shelter gives them a strong sense of security, especially if it protects them from predators from above. There have been research trials that marked hens with radio-collars that showed that hens given the choice to free-range outside of the barn actually choose not to. Over half the birds is some trials NEVER leave the security of the barn, and many of them spend a lot of time in the doorway….protected, but able to look out. Hens also have a serious aversion to wind, and really don’t like to go outside on windy days.
Hens seem exceptionally sensitive to flying threats, and really appreciate overhead protection. Some of the same studies have shown that range use increases if there is overhead shelter provided. Of course, putting a roof over the range makes it much less Disney-esque, and it is not difficult to imaging this roofed structure eventually gaining some type of walls to keep the rain and wind out….oops, now it’s a barn again.

Speaking of rain….it is another major drawback to range hens. Wet environments are incredible breeding grounds for bacteria, fungi and viruses that can devastate the health of a flock. Again….backyard flocks can work to keep

There is a reason why "mad as a wet hen" is a simile.....

There is a reason why “mad as a wet hen” is a simile…..

a range dry…shifting the area hens have access to, or shovel away the dirty, manure filled mud and replace it with dry, clean fill. Imagine trying to manage the range for a flock of 20,000 birds (I keep using 20,000 birds, since this is the average flock size in Ontario….it is a very small flock size compared to many places). Recommended range availability for laying hens is around 4 square meters per hen (right now, Canada has no explicit range size recommendations, but this number applies to other jurisdictions). For my hypothetical flock, we need 80,000 square meters of land to manage. This is 15 soccer fields to drain, clean, manage and keep attractive to the hens. It isn’t so much that it can’t be done, but it is very complicated and labour intensive.

Another thing that is controlled well indoors is light. Ever since pressure on laying hen farmers in the EU forced hens to be housed with outdoor access, mortality and welfare problems due to pecking and cannibalism has been one of the biggest obstacles facing the farmers and birds. In small groups (ie less than about 25), hens develop a solid “pecking order” that is mostly maintained by postures, feints and threats. In larger groups, dominance pressures more often result in physical attacks and then wounds. The other difficulty caused by daylight is the stimulation to keep birds laying throughout the fall and winter months. Chickens are encouraged to lay by increasing day length, and decreasing day length will push hens out of lay. Because our latitude causes maximum day lengths of over 15 and a half hours, it is necessary to keep the barn lights on for at least 16 hours per day. The further north you go, the longer the longest day is.

Finally, we keep hens indoors to protect them from predators. I’ve discussed problems of predation with many small farmers and backyard keepers. Predation is a very difficult problem….owls, hawks, and eagles from the sky; cats,

Raccoons can open almost any latch, burrow under fences and climb.

Raccoons can open almost any latch, burrow under fences and climb almost anything.

dogs, foxes, raccoons, weasels, snakes and even bears from the ground. Latches get undone, fences get burrowed under, and the assault on all the supports, wires and nettings means that there needs to be constant repair. Remember….on a professional farm of 20,000 hens, we are surrounding and covering 15 soccer fields of area. And once a predator finds access to such an easy, tasty meal, they will not leave it or forget it….in fact, in the case of birds, they often recruit friends to help with the harvest.

So, in summary, hens are indoors to decrease disease and discomfort from environmental stresses, reduce injuries from each other and external predators, improve the control of the environment in terms of light intensity and day length. There are other reasons, such as practicality of providing feed and water when the hens are outside, disease transmission from wild animals (Avian Influenza is a big one), and problems caused by foraging (impacted crops, nutrition dilution because of high levels of fiber intake, etc).

I hope this gives non-farmers an insight as to why range hens are a niche market, supplied by farmers who command a significant premium for their product and usually have small farms. Shifting the majority of the professional farms to this strategy of production would be very difficult, and would lead to a lot of problems for the hens as the industry adapted.


Hidden Camera Videos

I watched a “documentary” today on CBC that was based on an “undercover investigation” by the group Mercy for Animals (MFA).  It was an expose on the pig industry and the intensive confinement that is used in pig agriculture.  It was graphic, ugly, and portrayed the farmers as heartless animal abusers who are strictly out for a buck.  If you are an animal rights group that is against the use of animals for food (which MFA is), it was an incredibly effective tool.  If you are the CBC, a nationally funded broadcasting agency paid for by the people, it may not have been quite as effective a story.  Tom Kennedy, the investigative reporter, was sent a tailor-made, exclusive to w5 video clip that was taken by an Animal Rights advocate who admitted that his goal is for all people to become vegetarians.  The video was shown (I’m not sure how much of the video that was sent to w5 was shown), and the activist was interviewed.

Much of the video was centered around injured pigs, euthanizing piglets by “blunt trauma” and pigs in gestation crates, which severely confine their movement and restrict the behaviour dramatically.  The fact is, pig farms are big.  All the people who live in cities eat pork.  As do all the people who live in towns, and the people who live on dairy farms, chicken farms and guys who produce crops.  All these people produce 0% of the pork they need.  On the show, there was the obligatory 5 second shot of 5 pigs running around in the mud somewhere (not in the snowy environs outside Winnipeg where the videod farm was).  The reality is that pigs do not fare well outside in Canada for 6-8 months of the year….but that’s besides the point.

I’m not here to defend the pork industry….I know more about it than most people, but I am not an expert in pork production, nor have I worked intimately with pork producers for a dozen years or so.  I know that the video was sensationalized, and probably consisted of less than 0.01% of the video the activist shot.  The bottom line is that some very bad things happened on the farm, some moderately bad things happened on that farm that were able to be edited and shown out of context to be made to look bad, and there are some things that people who are ignorant about agriculture find distasteful, but aren’t inhumane. (Proper euthanasia often falls under this category).

Interestingly, during one of my MSc lectures, a welfare scientist who has often been quoted in activist videos showed another, much older, protest video that he was involved in.  His was a cautionary tale (since we were going to be graduating as animal welfare experts), and he was saying how important it was to be extremely careful when commenting on animal welfare for these groups.  He was filmed and quoted in several sections of the video in question, and then explained to us what his answers actually were.  Once, his answer was complete, but through the magic of editing, the interviewer asked a different question, then inserted his answer, entirely changing the meaning.

The bottom line is, animal activists and protest videos have an agenda.  They admit it freely, but it still gets forgotten by the people watching the show.  Expert opinions that are offered as support may be accurate, or may not.  Remember, the animal rights people want to stop the use of animals.  They believe it is immoral to use animals for our benefit.  I actually admire activists….they believe in something, and do their best to promote their moral view and spread it.  Of course, I also admire Jehovah’s Witness’, for the same reason.  I don’t agree with either of them, but admire their committment.

The reality is that farmers give the public what they want.  If farmers could sell their pigs for twice as much, and spend twice as much time with half the number of pigs, they would jump at the chance.  If the production from 100 pigs could pay for a farmers mortgage and living expenses, that agricultural model would exist.  But the proportion of organic pork sold in stores is not increasing.  If people are only willing to pay a little more for pork before they switch to beef, chicken or eggs, then farmers need to figure out the most humane way they can produce pork under those constraints.  NOBODY can afford to have a job that doesn’t pay the bills….if they do, it’s called a hobby, and they need to have a job on the side.

The fact is, bringing these issues to light are good for the industry, animals, and consumers….if they are taken with a grain of salt.  Conservative institutions like agriculture change slowly, and the goad provided by extremists make farmers evaluate what they do, and progresses animal welfare.  Letting consumers realize the direction that the economics of food production push production strategies is also helpful.  Painting farmers as the cause of the system is like blaming your doctor when you are sick.

Just some thoughts on hidden camera videos.  If you keep them in mind the next time you see one of these videos, try to remember that this is the likely distillation of months of video, edited to make it look as bad as possible.  If you don’t work in an office, imagine someone with an agenda doing his best to make your workplace look ugly….could it be done?  In all honesty, I would HATE for someone to do an undercover video of me parenting my kids….if you take all my worst parenting moments over the past 3 months and make a montage…..just sayin.


Be Careful what you Wish For….EU Egg Crisis

I am “up” on the animal welfare issues facing laying hen farmers across the world.  Different jurisdictions are dealing with hen housing in different ways, trying to find a balance between production efficiencies, animal welfare, consumer demands, environmental impact, food safety, and many other concerns.  The European Union has been touted as the leader in this regard, leading the way in banning conventional cages as of January 1/ 2012.  Animal rights organizations have long been using this as the “gold standard” when they criticized other areas for not moving fast enough on this issue.

Unfortunately for the EU, their policy has had some holes in it.  Recent newspaper articles have shown that there is an egg supply crisis in the EU…

“Britain’s supermarket shelves could be empty of key products within a month as an acute shortage of eggs threatens to have serious consequences for the country’s food chain. New EU rules banning the housing of hens in conventional cages are being blamed for what some in the industry are already labelling a “crisis”, as competition among food manufacturers to source eggs sends prices rocketing. The price of eggs on the EU wholesale market has nearly quadrupled over the past week to more than four euros a kilo.” The Guardian, Mar 4/2012


“France is now suffering a shortfall of 21 million eggs a week or 10 per cent of overall production, the National Union of Egg Industries and Professionals said in a statement. As a result, egg prices shot up 75 per cent between October last year and February”  Ottawa Citizen, Mar 2/ 2012

The mistake that the EU made was that they tried to be too much to too many people, and they did not enforce a “phase-in” period.  (As an aside, I would like to point out that I have the benefit of hindsight and the ability to analyze what other jurisdictions have done since the EU directive was enacted in 1999….I am NOT criticizing the program, or the people who developed it.  They were WAY ahead of the curve, and did an excellent job.  They weren’t perfect however, and this situation can serve as a cautionary tale for other jurisdictions, like Canada, that are still deciding how to deal with the issue.)

The EU (under pressure from animal rights groups), decided that conventional cages were unacceptable, and legislated them out of existence.  They gave a 12 year “accommodation period” for the industry to adapt to the legislation, but didn’t demand a gradual uptake of alternative housing.  What happened is that farmers put off the huge investment for as long as they could (remember the unlucky coincidence of the world-wide recession in this period).  The legislation also discouraged farmers from investing in furnished cages (again, because any cage system was discouraged by animal rights groups), by categorizing them as “cage” eggs, and not paying a premium for them.  This resulted in many farms hesitating to moving to free-run or aviary systems, since they are less efficient and much different to manage.

There are two situations that have resulted….some countries have aggressively adopted the new requirements, and have been importing the eggs that they have not been able to produce locally, since the new systems are somewhat less efficient.  Now, however:

“Under the new rules, manufacturers are not now permitted to source their eggs from non-compliant EU countries, 13 of which have yet to introduce the new pens.” The Guardian, Mar 4/2012.  Because of this, even compliant countries are short of eggs, especially for commercial markets, such as for bakeries and food production facilities that use liquid or powdered eggs as ingredients.

“Cake and brioche manufacturers [in France] may soon be forced to shut down production and temporarily lay off workers if shortages continue.” Ottawa Citizen, Mar 2/2012.  I’m not 100% sure what brioche is, but it sounds yummy, and if it not produced anymore, I expect the world will suffer.

Countries in the EU are still unhappy with the directive….Irish sources state:


“Unfortunately, the cost of complying with the directive and the way in which it was implemented forced an estimated 10% to 15% of our producers out of business. This has resulted in a tightening of egg supplies and a rise in the price of eggs. ” Belfast Telegraph, Mar 10/2012.

They say a fool never learns, a smart man learns from his mistakes, and a wise man learns from other men’s mistakes.  If this is true, what can be learned from the EU example? 

First, putting together these types of sweeping rules is VERY complicated, the pitfalls are deep and plentiful, and the repercussions are HUGE.  So, as frustrating as it is to say, it is necessary to approach this issue slowly and carefully.  I have been really frustrated in the pace of change in the industry, but moving forward slowly and correctly is much more effective than moving quickly.  Jurisdictions such as the United States have proposed plans that give a phase in period, but have required benchmarks that require a certain amount of the industry to be compliant an interim times.  Other jurisdictions, such as Manitoba, have started to pay an incentive for hens housed in furnished cages, as well as loose-housed systems. 

I think that improving welfare is important, and it is the right thing to do.  All the farmers I work with agree, and want to do the right thing for their birds.  The unfortunate thing is that the question is so complicated that it is impossible to know for sure what the right answer is.  And the repercussions of moving the wrong way is losing your life’s work.  We can do it, and we can do it right.  I would like to thank the EU for paving the way with a really good first draft of a welfare program.  I can’t wait to be part of the committee that improves on the system of implementation that they developed.

Mike the Chicken Vet


What is Poultry Welfare?

Actually, the question should be “What is poultry welfare to YOU?”.  As I’ve mentioned before, I am doing a Master’s degree in animal welfare.  It has long been an interest of mine, and the circumstances resulted in me doing the degree part-time, while I am still doing my vet job.

Today, in my “Assessing Animal Welfare” course, a discussion evolved on defining animal welfare (makes sense to figure out what you are assessing before you start).  Basically, the gurus say there are 3 broad components of animal welfare – mental states (referred to as feelings or affective states), health (the absence of pain and illness), and ability to live naturally.   The great thing is that, almost universally, EVERYONE agrees on benefits and detriments for animals.  Nobody will argue that it is good for chickens to be sick, or hungry or in pain; and everyone will agree that it is good for hens to be able to perform natural behaviours like nesting, perching and dust-bathing.  It should be simple to go forward from this point.  Unfortunately, very few changes in hen care result in improvements in all 3 aspects.  Often, strategies that improve the hens’ health restrict the diversity in the environment, resulting in boredom.  More freedom of movement and behaviour almost inevitably result in more injuries and pain. 

The problems, arguments, plebiscites, lawsuits and angst result from the different emphasis people put on different aspects of welfare.  If chickens are allowed to wander outside, they will get more disease, and suffer more deaths and injuries from predators.  Nobody will argue this point.  What happens is that people argue about whether it is worth it.  (Even if, sometimes, the combatants don’t even realize that this is the discussion they are having.)   “Hens have to have access to the outside, to feel sunshine on her face”, and “The mortality and disease rates of range housing of laying hens is unsupportable” are actually just different shades of grey. 

I think that the discussions would be a lot more productive and congenial if everyone involved in the debate would realize that we are all actually on the same side.   We all want happy chickens living a free, healthy, productive life.  The question is: how many days of illness are worth the feel of sunshine on her beak?  How heavy a load of bacteria offsets the satisfaction of scratching through the dirt for bugs and grubs?  There is no set answer, but everyone has a valid opinion.

The discussion has to continue, and farmers have to continue to evolve to meet the society’s expectations.  Just remember, the debate has been going on for thousands of years….Aristotle and Plato discussed animal welfare in ancient Greece.  If they couldn’t figure it out, I don’t expect the answer will be very simple or straightforward.

Mike the Chicken Vet