MEF, which represents nearly 170 egg and pullet producers, has banned the installation of any new conventional cages after Dec. 31, 2014.
“I think this is the best way to go — it’s farmer initiated and we’re doing what the research tells us works,” said Ed Kleinsasser, Manitoba Egg Farmers chairman.
Instead of conventional cages, producers will be required to use a furnished or enriched housing system, which provides birds with more space, perches, scratching surfaces and private nesting boxes.
Free-run aviaries are also an option for producers moving away from the conventional cage system.
Bill McDonald, CEO of the Winnipeg Humane Society, welcomed the change.
“We’re very pleased to see the end of the battery cages,” he said.
“Chickens like to lay their eggs in an enclosed space away from other chickens, they like to roost, to get up an sit on something… if you see them outside they will be going around, scratching, looking for things, and there are scratch pads in the furnished housing,” he said. “So while the furnished housings are not, by comparison to a free-range or open-range situation ideal, they are certainly a big step up from the battery cages.”
Kleinsasser said discussions on hen housing began several years ago, adding his organization has kept a close eye on developments in Europe, where animal welfare concerns forced egg producers to abruptly switch to enriched housing.
“So in 2010 we made it our policy to start in this direction,” he said. “It’s not something we’ve done lately or lightly, we’ve talked about it over the course of years.”
Although he doesn’t go so far as to say producers are enthusiastic about the changes, Kleinsasser said they “seem to support it and they are willing to go along with it” and he hasn’t heard any complaints.
Roughly a dozen Manitoba producers, representing 120,000 laying hens, have already adopted the new system.
“I have about a quarter of my birds in this furnished housing system already,” said Kurt Siemens, who farms near Rosenort.
“It’s a very good system… I look at the birds in there and they are content, they are doing well, eating the feed they’re supposed to, drinking well and laying their eggs in the nesting box.”
A significant amount of research went into developing the enriched cages to ensure they suited the behavioural needs of chickens, said Bill Guenter, a poultry specialist at the University of Manitoba.
First designed in Europe, enriched housing was studied extensively in Manitoba before the egg farmers decided to adopt the housing system, which costs 20 to 25 per cent more.
“With this system, the feathering is better, the bone health is better… the birds are healthier,” Guenter said. “From a welfare standpoint with the birds, if the bones are stronger at the end, it’s less damaging to them.”
Having perches also makes the birds more comfortable.
“Birds like to sit at night on perches, it’s their natural behaviour. If you’ve ever had chickens on your farm, you’ll see that they look for perches at night,” he said.
By providing hens with more space — 700 square centimetres per bird versus 420 in the old system — aggression is also lessened. If a bird is being pecked or bullied, it can move away from the aggressor.
The organization also consulted with the Winnipeg Humane Society, and will continue to meet with it on a yearly or bi-yearly basis.
“We’re trying to be progressive and look after our chickens to the best of our knowledge, with the best research we can get,” said Kleinsasser. “We also want to answer consumer concerns to the best of our ability.”
Food safety was paramount in the development of the enriched housing system.
“We are producing a food here and it’s very important that the manure is separated from the eggs and so on, so food safety combined with the welfare initiative of open housing is really… a nice combination and a responsible balance,” said Brenda Bazylewski, communications director for the Egg Farmers. “We envision this particular system will be around for quite some time.”
A four-cent levy rebate on marketable dozens of eggs has also been introduced to help producers cover transition costs. So far there is no deadline for removing conventional cages.
Siemens said he will continue to install the new, enriched housing as his conventional cages reach the end of their life-spans.
“There is more cost, but for the value you get keeping your hens in this type of system, it’s well worth it,” he said.