March 27, 2021

Caged vs cage-free egg laying systems

Until the recently, the most common egg laying system in North America was the caged system.

In Canada alone, almost 25 million hens are raised for egg production each year, laying approximately 600 million eggs collectively. More than 90 percent of these egg laying hens spend their entire adult lives in cages. This method has historically proven to be efficient in producing table eggs, but there has been a recent shift in the industry to move towards the cage-free system instead.

Food retailers across North America, Europe and even Asia have pledged to source 100 percent of their eggs from cage free facilities in the next five to 10 years. This has created uncertainty among egg producers about how to successfully manage laying hens in cage-free systems while maintaining profitability.

Egg farmers across North America are starting to prioritize hen welfare and using it as a consideration as to whether or not they should transition to furnished cages (also known as modified, colony or enriched cages) or cage-free housing.

While an improvement for the commonly used battery cages, furnished cages do not provide for all of a hen’s physical and behavioural needs. Today’s commercially available cages restrict a hen’s ability to run, jump, fly, and flap her wings, as well as express natural behaviour such as nesting, foraging and roosting. Research shows that cage-free systems have the capacity to allow for exercise and the expression of these behaviours, resulting in less frustration and fear and better plumage, stronger bones and fewer physical injuries.

There are advantages and disadvantages of every type of hen housing system, and even cage-free solutions are not without their welfare concerns. Specifically, non-cage systems need to be carefully managed to limit risks of disease, injuries, injurious pecking, and mortality.

Transitioning from conventional cages

The transition of Canada’s hens from conventional to enriched housing systems is a complex undertaking that requires a nationally coordinated approach with participation and support from industry and all stakeholders. For example, to support hen welfare needs in enriched systems in layer barns, significant changes to pullet rearing housing systems are also necessary. In addition, since egg farmers will have to take hens out of production while new housing systems are being built, there is a need to coordinate housing conversions to ensure that market demand for eggs can continue to be met.

The difference between cage eggs and cage-free eggs

Cage-free eggs cost more than caged eggs because cage-free hens are more active and expend more energy than caged hens, therefore requiring more feed. There is no difference in nutrition between caged and cage-free eggs.

Cost difference between the two types of housing

Moving hens into cage-free environments involves additional costs and new challenges, but egg producers can address these in part by focusing on these five factors:

  1. Animal health and wellbeing
  2. Food safety and quality
  3. Environment
  4. Worker health and safety
  5. Food affordability

The three main types of cage-free systems

There are many different types of cage-free systems. The most commonly employed designs are the following:

  • Floor raised
  • Aviary
  • Enriched colony cages

Each of these systems have their own advantages and disadvantages that should be considered when converting to cage-free production.

Floor raised housing systems provide hens with full access to litter and movement including perches and nesting for comfort.

Aviary systems encourage hens to carry out natural behaviours such as nesting and perching, and provide access to floor litter. This allows increased movement, exercise, and flight for the laying hens, bringing associated welfare advantages but this type of system also creates farm management challenges.

Enriched cages provide hens more movement as well as amenities such as perches, scratch pads, and nesting areas, facilitating greater feed and health care practices.

Both the aviary and floor housing systems have the distinct disadvantage of exposing hens to litter and excreta, creating potential health and food safety concerns.

Ruby360 caged and cage-free systems, explained

AGK 3600 Enriched Colony System (Enriched)

This high performance system is designed for maximum productivity and manageability for your hens. It features a nest with nest mat, scratch pad, perches, claw sharpener and a specially designed floor for smooth egg roll out onto the egg belt ensuring great quality eggs every day.

The AGK is suitable for two types of feeding: Traditional chain feeding or our exclusive feed hopper designed to deliver consistent feed to each hen.

More information on the AGK 3600 Enriched Colony System.

High Rise 3 Aviary System (Cage Free)

This system combines easy management with animal welfare considerations, resulting in a high laying performance. The slope of the floor makes sure that the eggs roll into the nest, and perches in front of the nest can be lifted, creating more space for catching and cleaning.

Nests, feed, water, perches and slatted areas are easily reachable by the hens.

More information on the High Rise 3 Aviary System.

Pedigrow 2 Chick School (Cage Free)

This rearing system helps teach young hens everything they need to know to perform optimally in any aviary system. The multi-tier rearing system gives farmers full control over feed, water, manure belt and lighting. The system also comes with perches as well as raised drinkers and feeder lines, preparing birds perfectly to eat and drink from perches.

More information on the Pedigrow 2 Cage-Free Chick School.

Classic Nest Traditional Aviary System (Cage-Free)

This aviary system provides a very hygienic environment for egg production and helps reduce heat accumulation inside the nest.

The high nest entrance allows hens to easily enter and leave as they please. An astroturf mat keeps the nest clean and hygienic and provides the hen with a comfortable surface for laying eggs. The egg also has a short rolling distance to the egg belt to avoid cracked eggs.

More information on the Classical Nest Traditional Aviary System.

All In One Aviary System (Cage-Free)

This system is bird friendly, combining animal welfare with the highest laying performance system, resulting in the maximum number of sellable eggs.

A unique part of the manure removal in this system is the stainless steel scraper which cleans the belt perfectly and has the possibility to track the belt at the end of the row.

More information on the All in One Aviary System.