The history of the housing systems in place in egg production leads back to the 1920’s when egg production took place on general farmyards, these would include smaller farmyard flocks and a few establishments with larger flocks.
During these times hens were commonly kept outside and were commonly raised alongside other livestock.
As time went on farmers faced numerous challenges as flock sizes started to increase. In the 1930’s mortality increased to over 20% and new flocks were starting to encounter diseases, including salmonella pullorum, red mites, coccidiosis, worms, frostbite and losses to predators.
After World War II, consumer demand for eggs grew. With the need to produce more eggs at a low cost, farmers were faced with the challenge of meeting these demands. In the 1950’s an innovation came along that would change the industry.
Conventional cages were seen as one of the biggest advancements in hen welfare ever made. Also, known as battery cages, they housed 3 to 9 birds per cage and allowed the farmer to better control feed, manure, light and treatment practices. Since the hens were housed in smaller bird groups, there was a decrease in bird aggression and feather pecking.
Another big advantage was that cages allowed farmers to keep the eggs separate from the birds and the manure, improving food safety for the consumer.
By the mid 1960’s over 90% of egg production was in a conventional cage system. Cage systems evolved over time, from flat deck cages all on one level, to the modern stacked cage system.
In the 50 years between 1962 and 2012, the innovations in egg production led to a 50% increase in production, while at the same time reducing the carbon footprint by almost 50%.
Fewer resources were needed to produce eggs over this time, amounting to 81% less land needed, 96% less water and 41% less energy. This was thanks to genetic selection of hens that did very well in caged systems, and advancements in management and cage design.
Even though the industry saw huge advantages to conventional cages, there were downsides.
Farmers started to see cage layer fatigue in their birds, which is where the hens’ bones become fragile due to all their calcium being given to egg production. Foot health and feather cover issues emerged.
These issues were addressed with improvements in bird management, which included nutrition and density requirements. In 1989, a voluntary Code of Practice was released, which stated standards on hen housing density for birds housed in cages. Egg Farmers of Alberta started regulating density in the 1990’s for the first time.
The European Union announced in 1999, that they would be banning conventional cages in the EU after 2012, after a 12-year phase out. Here in North America our sights were on that development but producers remained comfortable continuing with conventional housing.
In 2003, the Canadian Code of Practice was updated and in 2005 the Canadian egg industry launched an Animal Care Program. The Animal Care Program assesses facilities
against the recommendations in the Code of Practice during an annual on farm audit.
Right around the same time that the Canadian Egg Industry released standards on density populations, the industry also started to come under scrutiny by animal rights organizations.
Organizations including universities, municipalities, grocery stores and fast food chains began to adopt resolutions to transition to cage free egg productions.
The egg industry took a deeper look into animal welfare and conventional cages. While conventional cages provide many benefits, this type of housing limits the birds’ ability to express a wide range of normal behaviours, and there is no management steps that can be taken to overcome this issue.
In 2009 Egg Farmers of Alberta started to deliver the message that producers shouldn’t limit themselves to conventional housing. In 2013, Egg Farmers of Alberta set a new standard, by adopting a policy that stated no new conventional cage systems will be allowed after December 31, 2014. Egg Farmers of Canada was soon to follow, and in 2016 they made an announcement that conventional cages will be phased out over the next 20 years.
The egg industry continues to evolve, offering a variety of housing alternatives to conventional cages:
Furnished or Enriched Housing: is a caged based system that provides the birds with more space, along with many different types of enrichments, which include nesting boxes, perches, scratch pads and dust baths. These enrichments offer the hens the opportunity to express more of their natural behaviours, while still being able to keep their manure separate from the eggs.
Free Run: is a cage free system that can take place on a barn floor or a tiered aviary. This system also includes many of the same enrichments as the furnished housing system. The main concern to this system is since the birds are housed in large groups this can increase aggression.
Free Range: is another cage free system, but these birds have access to the outdoors when weather permits. Since these birds have access to the outdoors the concern for predators comes into play once again. This system is mandatory for organic egg layers.
In 2009, the first furnished housing system in North America was installed in Alberta. This change brought on a whole new set of challenges to farmers, as they had to learn how to manage their flock within their new housing system. These new housing systems were not included in the 2003 code of practice so farmers had no information on density, etc. This issue has been resolved with the release of a revised Code of Practice in 2017, providing standards for alternative housing systems.
The hen housing journey has come a long way and today in Alberta, 75.2% of producers are using conventional systems, 10% are using furnished housing, 12% are free-run and 2.8% are free-range.
With the move to alternative housing systems, the industry is seeing a new set of challenges; learning how to best manage flocks in these systems, funding the immense cost of converting barns, and timing the transition of the egg industry so that it is in step with consumer demand.
The uncertainty of hen housing will continue for many years to come, but we need to be pleased with the changes and advancements that have been adopted by our industry. Farmers continue to work hard to meet the market demands and to provide a choice to consumers. Farmers also continue to learn and implement new strategies of production in today’s modern system of egg production.
This blog post was written in collaboration with Egg Farmers of Alberta.
All photos courtesy of Egg Farmers of Alberta.