Study: Behavioural impact of cages on hens

08-07-2009 | |

A Clemson University animal behaviourist is researching the impact cages and other confinement has on the development and well-being of hens.

“Cages were designed to keep hens clean, safe from predators, protected from adverse weather conditions and easily medicated to prevent disease,” said Peter Skewes, the department of animal and veterinary sciences researcher leading the 3-year project. “Initially, little thought was given to how cages affected behavioural or emotional needs.”

Recently, cage confinement has taken centre stage as egg producers and animal protectionists debate the kind of environment laying hens need.

More is at stake than just the comfort of chickens, though the well-being of 284 mln US laying hens is no small matter. Nearly 95% of the 90 bln table eggs produced in the US come from high-density cage systems. The value of all egg production in 2007 was $6.68 bln. In South Carolina egg sales tally about $90 mln annually. Changing production conditions are bound to affect the bottom the line.

Advocates for animal protection want the elimination of caged-layer egg production. What’s needed, say egg industry leaders, is scientific information to analyze the situation and provide the data for alternatives.

ithout data, designing management systems may be based on incomplete information about hen physiology and behaviour, according to Skewes.

“There isn’t a lot of data on the impact of cage systems on neural and behavioural development in chickens. Although some alternative systems are emerging in Europe, there are few alternatives being developed in the US,” said Skewes. (See related video)

Skewes will compare cage- and non-cage-production systems for more than 900 chickens at Clemson’s Morgan Poultry Centre.

“We have commercial cage conditions in one area, and on the other side we have a pen or floor environment with a lot of enrichment and stimulation,” said Skewes. “What we’re going to do is look at physiological and behavioural differences as a result of the birds being in these 2 treatments, and, hopefully, that will lead us to have more knowledge and make better decisions about how we want to house these birds and manage them for the production of table eggs.”

The research is funded by a $348,000 National Research Initiative grant from the US Department of Agriculture. Animal and veterinary science department chairwoman Mary Beck was awarded the grant and named Skewes co-investigator.

Source: Clemson University

Natalie Berkhout Freelance journalist