To cage or not to cage?
Issues surrounding laying chicken environments
Comfortable chickens are productive chickens, as every egg producer knows, but environments must be balanced with efficiencies, profits and resources. And just what is the ideal environment for a laying hen? In the absence of poultry mind reading, discussions over caged and free-run conditions will continue – there are no simple answers.
Consumers may place too much human emotion on hens, but these perceptions need to be taken into consideration in the age of instant information and farmer engagement.
Farming practices have evolved for greater bird comfort, yet each farmer must choose the best type of operation for their situation.
“Much of the debate is based on personal choice,” said Allen Knowles, Producer Liaison Officer with the BC Egg Marketing Board.
James Krahn, runs the farming operations for Paragon Farms. One of the organization’s six locations recently converted to a free-run facility.
“It’s a big adjustment between running caged layers to going to free-run,” Krahn said. “And there’s a lot of trial and error.”
This Paragon facility houses 13,000 Lohmann Brown layers in two barns.
“As demand for specialty eggs increased, we wanted to diversify,” Krahn noted. “It mitigates our risk by exploring other markets.”
With both caged and free-run facilities, Krahn is in the ideal position of having comparable results.
“It was an easy transition for us because of the dimensions of the facility,” he said of the free-run facility which had previously been a cage barn.
There are pros and cons to both caged and free-run systems. Knowles noted caged birds have continuous easy access to food and water, higher egg production and a smaller footprint. Krahn added that free-run birds can take advantage of certain instinctual activities like perching and jumping.
“Some would say [they are] ‘happier’,” Knowles summarized of free-run birds. But without that bird mind reading, it’s hard to know.
Krahn noted that converting from caged layers to free-run also required a change in management practices and increased attention to detail partly because costs per bird are higher in free-run however, the eggs are sold at a premium price.
“Everything we do is based on these computers,” he said, pointing to the systems that control the air, light, feed and water. This includes keeping ammonia levels low and temperatures comfortable.
Free-run management has also meant “teaching” the chickens how to jump. By starting water line platforms on the ground, then gradually raising them, the birds learn to hop. This can be beneficial in avoiding aggressive pecking. Knowles noted that caged layers experience less pecking issues than their free-run counterparts due to reduced opportunities and the ability to isolate more aggressive birds.
At about 17 weeks, Krahn’s team moves the birds from their “training barn” into a barn with nesting boxes that keep the eggs cleaner than floor laid eggs.
“It’s best to move them a little earlier [than the age for laying],” he said of the birds who generally begin laying at 18.5 weeks. This gives the chickens time to adjust and may help with preventing floor eggs.
Light is a key aspect to nest box usage. Krahn stated the barns have no natural light – only artificial light controlled by the automated system. Working with the rhythm of morning laying, lights go on in the nesting boxes to attract the birds before the overhead lights go on.
“When they have to lay, they have to lay,” Krahn said. Thus, the importance of ensuring eggs are laid in the nest box, especially with a flock that produces about 5,700 eggs a day.
The nest boxes are connected to a conveyor system which runs once a day for collection, reducing the labour required to walk the barn or collect eggs from cages.
Krahn believes their free-run system is worth the effort and credits the input and sharing from fellow farmers for the positive results.
“We weren’t the first ones to do any of this,” commented Krahn.”And no one system is better than another.”
Knowles noted approximately 20 per cent of BC Egg Marketing Board producers are on free-run or free-range systems.
“I think they’re happy,” Krahn said of his birds. “If they’re not comfortable, they’re not going to produce.”