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The Debate Around Hen Housing

By: Margherita Vittorelli, Marketing Coordinator, Saskatchewan Egg Producers

Hens in an aviary housing system in Saskatchewan.
Photo courtesy of Saskatchewan Egg Producers
and Colin Hubick.

Where consumer demand leads, suppliers will follow. But what if consumers’ preferences do not necessarily mean increased animal welfare?

Nielsen consumer reports show a constant increase in demand for free-run and free-range eggs over the last few years. The recent commitment by McDonald’s to cage-free eggs sparked renewed debate on animal welfare in layer barns. This trend mirrors growing consumer awareness on the subject. Yet the issue, which animal protection organizations and consumers paint in black and white, is open for debate in the scientific and farming community.

Hen welfare spans a variety of occasionally conflicting elements. Pest control and skeletal health do not, for example, proceed hand-in-hand.  In reality, each system involves trading one set of benefits for another.

Mortality, injury, parasites and mites all occur with higher instances in free-run and free-range barns. These systems allow the hens to roam freely and express natural behaviours, such as spreading their wings, foraging, scratching, perching, and dustbathing. Unfortunately, hens’ natural behaviours include dominant and submissive attitudes, and that, coupled with increased group sizes, differing floor spaces and many other factors that we do not fully understand, can lead to bullying, pecking, injury and even death. Further, hens are not renowned for steely nerves. A sneeze could throw a flighty flock into a panicked frenzy, which might result in “piling” and deathly crushes. Parasites can make a good life for themselves in the litter used in free-run barns, which disease-carrying bacteria also rather enjoy.

Conventional cages protect hens from bullying, which does not occur once the hierarchy is established in small groups. They limit the spread of certain parasites and mites, and prevent activities that can result in injury. However, they limit or eliminate the expression of natural behaviours, which can lead to stress, while the lack of exercise can cause osteoporosis.

So which system is better? The answer remains under investigation. The scientists and members of the Poultry Extension Team at the University of Saskatchewan and in other Canadian universities, conduct extensive research to identify the practices most conducive to hen welfare. Egg farmers, in Saskatchewan and in Canada, are oftentimes cast as the villains profiting from animal cruelty, yet they work tirelessly to provide the best quality of life to their livestock and supply hundreds of thousands of dollars to conduct leading research.

It is of great importance to communicate the complexity of the issue to consumers and while a perfect solution has yet to be found, one thing is for certain: egg farmers are the most invested in finding the answer.

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