Egg farmers started bringing chickens indoors in the 1940s and 1950s in order to keep them safe from diseases and predators. Today, the egg industry is facing pressure from animal welfare groups, consumers, and food chains vowing to use only cage-free eggs. The lack of unified guidelines and industry conflict on what “cage-free” really looks like have left farmers in a grey area, unclear about how to switch to cage-free housing, what housing system to switch to, and how to most effectively manage a cage-free facility to maintain optimal production.
There are three primary organizations that offer cage-free labeling certifications: United Egg Producers, Humane Farm Animal Care, and American Humane Association. Each organization has strict rules that must be adhered to in order to be certified under their label. These rules range from how much space each bird should have to move around and perform natural activities such as perching and dust bathing to regulations on air quality and light intensity throughout the day.
When choosing to go cage-free, farmers have several housing options – aviary systems, enriched or convertible systems, and floor housing. Each has its own set of advantages and drawbacks; aviary systems allow greater stocking densities and the greatest freedom of movement, but can result in higher incidences of hen aggression and floor eggs; enriched allow for better feed control and bird health, but with less room to move; floor systems have low stocking density for the foot print, but birds have the greatest amount of space to move.
Using certifier regulations as a guideline, we’ve outlined a series of best practices and considerations to create a successful, productive, cage-free layer barn. Diet, breed choice, and attentive personnel all play a vital role in creating an optimal facility, and when blended with the right system, the right practices can lead to a productive farm with many happy, healthy, hens.