Beyond 2012: The future of egg production systems

13-03-2012 | | |
Beyond 2012: The future of egg production systems

From the first of January of this year, traditional cages have officially been banned in the EU. To a large extent these have been replaced by alternative systems. Despite the advantages, some systems also have disadvantages. Most likely the development of new and better systems will continue.

By Arnold Elson, Nottingham, UK*
2012 will see the most dramatic changes in egg production systems that Europe has ever known. Whilst it has become apparent that not all conventional laying cages (CC) have been taken out of service by the beginning of this year, as required by EU Council Directive (CD) 99/74/EC, the requirement is there and when it is accomplished over 250 million laying hen places will have been moved from CC to furnished (enriched) cages (FC) and non-cage systems (NC) within a short timescale. It also seems likely that soon after the transition has been completed in Europe it will be underway in North America and take place there over a period of about 10 years from 2015.
There are also indications that Australia, New Zealand and South America will move in the same direction. The future in Africa and also Asia, where many CC are currently being installed, is less certain but in due course the same trend may well emerge, brought about by similar pressures. Meanwhile, it is interesting that in Europe and the USA the majority of laying hens (possibly over 70 %) seem likely to continue to be accommodated in laying cages, such as FC.
Cultural factors
Returning to Europe, where cultural factors have resulted in considerable differences in the proportion of laying hens in different housing systems between Member States (MS), the overall picture is that CC have predominated in eastern and southern regions, whereas barn and free-range systems are more prominent in northern ones (Figure 1). The data presented here indicate the position about three years ago.
Since then different MS have moved from CC into other housing systems at varying rates, so the current picture is less clear. However, it seems that the majority of laying hens that were housed in CC will move into FC and that the trend to barn and free-range systems will continue mainly in those MS where they were already evident in 2008. However, in some such MS the rate of change has slowed, or even reversed, partly due to adverse economic conditions.
Furnished (enriched) laying cages
It can be assumed that in Europe, for the foreseeable future, most hens will be in FC of various types. Much progress has been made in design refinement and improvement in FC and this can be expected to continue. Meanwhile, most FC in Scandinavian countries are for small groups of 8–10 hens (FCS), but those in the rest of Europe are mainly in larger groups of 40–80 hens (FCL, see Photo 1).
The performance of hens in FC over the past few years has proved superior to that in both CCs and NC in terms of egg output, feed conversion efficiency, plumage cover and liveability. In addition, large scale comparative welfare studies across all currently available housing systems, have shown that bird welfare in well managed FC is as good, and probably superior to that in any system. A conclusion of such a study at Bristol University was “… considering the indicators of physical wellbeing and stress response, the welfare of hens in the FC system appeared to be better than that of hens in other systems”.
Further developments anticipated
Despite the impressive performance and welfare of well managed laying hens in good designs of FC, the system is still relatively new and further developments can be anticipated. These may include:
·         Size of cage, which is gradually increasing. Several models are now 150 cm or more deep and length has also increased, so far up to about five metres, without any obvious drawbacks. This does offer more flexibility e.g. to increase the distance between nest boxes and litter areas, to introduce different light intensities in certain areas (possibly requiring internal illumination) and to allow more space for the exercise of some behaviours.
·         Litter provision and litter material. The requirements of EU CD 99/74/EC for litter are minimal and cage manufacturers often only install a small mat or board designed to receive a scattering of (usually feed) litter occasionally. Studies are underway to establish the best litter type, mat size, depth and frequency of provision to enable hens to “satisfy their ethological needs” and minimise feather pecking.
·         Lighting and light intensity. These are important especially in terms of minimising feather and injurious pecking in non-beak trimmed birds, ensuring optimum egg output and meeting hens’ requirements for various behaviours.
·         A technique to interest and occupy hens and, at the same time, blunt their beaks and redirect pecking from their feathers to a suitable object would be a great innovation.
Barn and free-range systems (NC)
Whereas in several MS cages predominate and are likely to do so for the foreseeable future, in a few others aviary (barn) and free-range systems are becoming increasingly popular. The UK has the highest proportion of hens free-range whereas in Austria, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden barn eggs constitute a considerable proportion of total production.
The type of housing used for barn and free-range systems is almost identical. The difference is that free-range houses generally have pop-holes along the length of one or both their sides. Multi-tier aviaries are increasingly being used for the housing part of both systems (Photo 2). Increasingly, natural or artificial shelter and shade are being provided to encourage more hens out and well away from the house (Photo 3).
Whilst this may appear attractive and consumers enjoy the thought of hens having plenty of freedom, reality in relation to hen wellbeing may be quite different. It is akin to mixing domesticated and wild animals and is therefore not surprising that mortality is generally much higher in free-range than other systems (Figure 2). The main causes of this mortality, and additional ‘missing mortality’ which is rarely recorded, are predation by wild animals and birds of prey and smothering due to hens rushing together when they become fearful of things they perceive as potential aerial predators, but there are also several other risks associated with keeping hens outside. However some consumers, who are generally unaware of these dangers, are willing to pay a premium for free-range eggs.
Welfare standards must be improved
These deficiencies in the free-range system need to be addressed if they are to live up to consumers’ perceptions of them as being ‘welfare-friendly’. As I stated in World Poultry over two years ago (Vol. 25, no. 9: 2009), “Scientific research appears to indicate that optimum overall welfare of laying hens is not achieved in free-range flocks but in those kept in (well designed) FC”.
The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) opinion on laying hen welfare ( recommended that “Efforts should be made to minimise mortality and morbidity in order to reduce the risk of poor welfare. Only those systems, in which there is expected to be low mortality, should be used”. Thus action is required to improve hen welfare by making free-range safe. What can be done?
Unique Rondeel housing system

Rondeel, the product of considerable R&D over several years, is called so because of its shape. Being round it is divided into segments, each segment having night quarters, day quarters and a safe range fringe (Figure 3).

What makes the small wooded range area safe? It is completely enclosed and covered by wire mesh. What is the large, high, airy, naturally lit green area enclosed within each segment called the day quarters (Photo 4)? It consists mainly of (artificial) grass enabling hens to forage, peck, scratch, dust bathe (in a peat bay), range, flap wings and even fly! Could it be real grass? Possibly, by one of two means.

The night quarters consist of a multi-tier aviary providing perches and platforms, nest boxes, feeders, drinkers and litter. They can be separated from the day quarters by insulated curtains. Van Niekerk and Reuvekamp described the system in more detail and reported encouraging results from the first commercial flock but pointed out that it is too early to draw general conclusions. One interesting aspect was that eggs from Rondeel hens were allowed to be marketed with three stars of the ‘better life’ hallmark of a leading Dutch animal welfare organisation. These three stars are normally only awarded to organically produced foods.
Definition has changed
Could Rondeel, or a variant of it, constitute safe ‘free-range’? How the definition of free-range has changed over the years. In the middle of the last century, when the system was very widely used, it meant small houses frequently moved around pasture with an optimum stocking density (SD) of 125-250 hens/ha. At the same time small fixed houses with pasture runs had a maximum SD of 750 hens/ha and were called ‘semi-intensive’.
Symposium on welfare
Scientific studies of welfare aspects of poultry production, like some of those referred to in this article, will be presented and discussed at a major event next year – the 9th European Symposium on Poultry Welfare, to be held in Uppsala, Sweden during June 2013.

Today, free-range often means large fixed houses adjacent to land with a SD of up to 2500 hens/ha and full of hazards, although the majority of hens rarely if ever go outside the house. So why not go one step further, allow the hens to range in airy conditions inside and to range to a limited extent in safe fully protected conditions outside, as in Rondeel.

This new ‘free-range’ system would avoid almost all the welfare risks found in the conventional system as currently defined, leaving organic egg production as the only fully extensive land based system. Consumers could still have the full choice of eggs from all systems and the wellbeing of the majority of free-range hens could be greatly improved.

Partially indoor free-range
Meerpohl in 2009, asked to consider likely developments in poultry keeping over the next 25 years, suggested that “We are not going to experience any spectacular new methods of poultry husbandry but will undoubtedly see continuous further developments and improvements of existing systems that, in the end, are certainly going to surprise us”. He is right about the latter but maybe, as suggested in this article, this dynamic and innovative industry could also move towards the adoption of a new system: safe, partially indoor, free-range.
* Chairperson, WPSA Working Group 9 on Poultry Welfare and Management and International Specialist in Poultry Systems