The real dirt on hen housing

By Kristen Kelderman, Farm Animal Care Coordinator, Farm & Food Care

The Real Dirt on Hen HousingHaving recently become a new homeowner, it’s amazing how many different housing options there are are out there. You might be a high rise condo dweller living in one of the many buildings that populate the horizon or maybe in a single detached family home that is more your style.

Townhomes, executive penthouse lofts, cottage living – the options are endless with each choice presenting different benefits and amenities. If you’re anything like me, the only restriction is your bank account!

It’s not that different when it comes to housing options for farm animals. Modern barns today offer many benefits that the traditional red bank barn of our grandparents’ age would never be able to provide. New advancements in technology have allowed the reconstruction of modern barns to provide things like climate-controlled environments, enriched amenities, access to feed and water 24 hours a day, smart phone alerts if an issue arises in the barn and much more.

But how do we know what good and what bad environments for farm animals actually are? Science helps to tell us this. There has been a lot of research around the globe on housing of farm animals and on how different environments affect them. Many researchers have dedicated their entire careers to this area of science: studying animal behaviour, environmental impacts, natural behaviours and many more aspects of how housing influences an animal’s life.

Let’s talk about laying hen housing – housing for the birds that lay the eggs that you enjoy for breakfast.

Recently a scientific study was published comparing three different hen housing environments. The findings of the Coalition for Sustainable Egg Supply are based on a three-year hen housing research project. The coalition wanted to “understand the sustainability impacts of three laying hen housing systems – cage-free aviary, enriched colony and conventional cage.”

To learn more about each housing type, visit the following link to tour several Canadian egg farms http://www.virtualfarmtours.ca/en/eggfarms/index.html

The interesting aspect of this study is that it not only looked at the animal health and well-being of the birds that lived in each system, but it also evaluated food safety and quality, environmental impacts, what the worker conditions in each barn were like and how the housing system was reflected in the price of eggs at the grocery store.

A lot of data was collected and analysed over three years. The idea behind the study was to gain a better understanding of each housing system from a number of different angles, to truly understand the impact of hen housing today.

You can access the full research report here, as well as an executive summary from the study here: http://www2.sustainableeggcoalition.org/final-results

Let’s take a quick look at what the final results found under each of the five areas studied.

Animal Health and Well-Being

The research focused on a number of factors including production of eggs, physical assessment, use of enrichments provided to the birds, physical conditions and health of the birds and physiological stress.

Overall it was found that when perches were provided, they were well used in both aviary and enriched colonies. The birds also used the nests to lay their eggs and kept this area clean. Health wise, better bone quality was observed when younger birds began in an aviary, but they were more prone to damaging their keel bones (this bone is an extension of the breastbone and runs along the underside of the bird’s body).

Mortality, foot health and feather condition all varied between the housing systems, with aviaries having birds fall prey to “pecking” orders within their colony. Overall there was no scientific evidence to indicate any short-term or long-term stress of the birds in any of the housing systems.

Food Safety

It is important to uphold strict food safety regardless of the housing system. Safe food is important to Canadians and to Canadian farmers. In this study, it was found that each housing system meet the current egg quality standards and grading. Indicating that no matter what the type of housing, all eggs are safe to eat.

Environmental Impact

Here key areas that were looked at include ammonia concentrations, nitrogen and manure. It was determined that the lowest levels of ammonia and dust were associated with both conventional and enriched colonies. When it came to the manure from aviary colonies, the manure was drier and had slightly higher levels of nitrogen.

Worker Health and Safety

The conditions in which employees worked in were evaluated for a variety of factors including respiratory health, ergonomic challenges and airborne particles. It was found that the aviary had the highest significance of airborne particles, short term effects on workers’ respiratory health and posed the most challenges for ergonomics when picking up eggs from the floor of the barn.

Food Affordability

When considering food affordability, the research looked at both the affordability to the consumers buying eggs at the store and the costs for farmers on operating and implementation costs.

It was concluded that the aviary system had the highest associated costs for farmers building a new barn (capital costs). The day-to-day operating costs were higher and the cost to buy a dozen eggs for breakfast was 36% higher than eggs coming from conventional barns.

In Conclusion

So what are the basics of the study? Ultimately it comes down to trade offs. There is not one perfect solution and there probably never will be. Housing is a multifaceted issue with many varying factors influencing the lives of farm animals. Management, Mother Nature, nutrition, climate, genetics and many other aspects of farming influence the bird’s life in the barn that they live in.

How we house farm animals has changed so much and will forever evolve as we continue to understand science and how it influences farm animals. It’s also a decision that farmers do not take lightly. When it comes time to upgrade their facilities and build new barns, many farmers tour other farms and go on trips to other countries to see the latest advancements.

They take into account all the areas listed above and more. As you can see it’s not an easy decision to make, there are pros and cons to each system, but as a farmer, it’s about using this information to make the right decision for your farm, family and the birds you care for.

Ultimately we will continue to improve the lives and systems that our farm animals live in.

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