“We’re talking about a progression.”
– penny kelly, mef
The wave of the future has begun lapping at the feet of Manitoba egg farmers with the arrival of a new cage for layer hens.
Three new entrants to the Manitoba egg industry will employ a so-called “enriched cage” housing system with more space and amenities for birds than the current battery cage.
The new producers, all in southeastern Manitoba, each received 6,000 quota units (hens) through a draw in early December with the condition that they use enriched cages.
It’s a sign the industry is moving toward alternate housing for laying hens after years of pressure from animal welfare groups.
But it’s a gradual change to give consumers a choice in the kind of eggs they want to buy, said Penny Kelly, Manitoba Egg Farmers general manager.
“We’re not talking about a wholesale change,” Kelly said. “We‘re talking about a progression.”
An enriched cage is larger than a battery cage and provides an opportunity for hens to roost, nest and scratch – all natural behaviour for a bird.
A prototype at the University of Manitoba houses 24 hens with a usable space of 99.6 square inches per bird. The current industry code of practice requires a minimum space of 67 square inches for a typical white-egg layer.
The prototype, cal led a Hellmann cage, contains a “discreet, curtained off” laying area, said Bill Guenter, a University of Manitoba poultry scientist. The hens lay their eggs on a soft mesh nesting area, somewhat similar to straw.
Having a nesting area is a “very big welfare issue” for laying hens, Guenter said. Nesting is a very strong instinct for a layer. Twenty minutes before she’s ready to lay, a hen will go through the motions of building a nest, even if there’s no material with which to do it. Guenter said a hen will expend even more energy building a phantom nest than she will eating.
The Hellmann cage also provides perches for roosting and areas for scratching – also strong instincts for hens.
Battery cages are an egg industry standard in Manitoba and the rest of North America. But they are being phased out in Europe by 2012 and replaced with free range, free run or enriched cage systems.
Industry officials feel it’s just a matter of time before the trend comes to North Amer ica. Al ready, several voter initiatives in the United States have called for the gradual elimination of confinement rearing for farm animals, including layer hens. Fast-food chains such as McDonald’s now require suppliers to increase their animal welfare standards.
Guenter acknowledged there is no financial incentive right now for a producer to switch to enriched cages. The University of Manitoba cages cost 44 per cent more per bird than traditional battery cages. In some cases in Europe, the price difference can be as high as 200 per cent.
But pressure for different housing systems is building on the egg industry and farmers need to be aware of alternatives, Guenter said.
A recent study published in the journal Poultry Science found no significant difference in laying performance, egg quality and bird health between the two cage systems. But it did find better bone quality among hens in enriched cages, which could be due to a greater ability to move about.
Manitoba Egg Farmers hosted a December 10 producer meeting in Winnipeg on enriched cages.
Of the 158 registered egg producers in Manitoba, eight currently use alternate housing facilities. Four are free run, one is free run with access to the outdoors and three have “enrichable” cages.
Bill McDonald, Winnipeg Humane society executive director, called the move to enriched cages “a positive step in the right direction.
“In an ideal situation, we would like to see a free-run, open-barn concept. But what we like about the enriched cages is the capability of the bird to do some natural functions,” McDonald said. [email protected]