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The future of egg production

From the first of January of this year, 2012, 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 To a large extent these have been replaced by alternative systems.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. 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. 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

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