February 4, 2021

Transitioning From Conventional Cages

The housing standard changes required for optimal hen welfare

In recent years, numerous Canadian food companies have pledged to source their eggs from either non-cage or enriched colony housing facilities, transitioning from the conventional caging system that has been used in the past. 

While this traditional layout used in commercial egg production is efficient, it restricts the hen’s ability to engage in natural behaviors. With hen welfare becoming more of a priority for egg farmers, the industry is committed to phase out conventional cages in a manner that is both practical and cost-efficient for farmers and consumers. Transitional pricing has already been implemented in order to provide fair compensation for those farmers retooling to alternative housing systems.

This transition is quite complex, requiring a great deal of planning and coordination that will see significant changes made to farm housing structures and furnishings in order to support the proposed welfare needs of hens. These changes will have a dramatic impact on the livelihood of hens with these four amenities demanding the most attention from farmers:

  1. Space  
  2. Nesting
  3. Perching
  4. Foraging and Dust Bathing

Space

Sufficient space must be given to each hen in order to provide opportunity for movement and natural behaviors including nesting, perching, and dust bathing. A space allowance will be available on a per bird basis but will differ depending on the cage system in place (non-cage or enriched).

The current minimum space allowance for laying hens in conventional cages is 432 cm2 per bird. The new space requirements will ensure a minimum space allowance of 750 cm2 for enriched cages and between 929-1900 cm2 for a non-cage system. 

The difference in space allowance for a non-cage system will depend on the type of flooring used in the facility. 100% litter floors require more useable space for hens whereas wire or wooden slat flooring require less. These measurements however, do not include nest space, which brings us to the next amenity

Weather permitting, some systems will also provide access to the outdoors in close proximity to vegetation. This provides increased risk of exposure to disease and other threats to welfare that will have to be monitored by the farmer.

Nesting

Nests are typically provided by the use of a curtained area or solid nest boxes. Hens prefer smaller nests, but farmers have the option of providing communal nests, which allow multiple hens to nest simultaneously. Nest spaces have these requirements:

  • The nest space must be enclosed on at least three sides to provide privacy and shading
  • Where nest curtains are used, they must extend close to the floor without impeding the flow of eggs
  • The nest area must not contain drinkers, feeders, or perches
  • The space between the nest area and the useable feed trough must be at least 15.2 cm
  • The floor of the nest area must be covered with a surface that promotes nesting and prevents injury

Much like space allowance, the minimum area requirements differ between enriched and non-cage systems. Enriched cages must provide a minimum nest space area of 65 cm2 and a non-cage system must provide a minimum of 83.2 cm2.

Practices such as regular cleaning of nests, observation of hens during peak nesting periods, and considerations such as bird strain will promote healthy transitional management of nesting requirements.

egg laying hen not in Conventional Cage.

Perching

Perches have a wide array of benefits for hens, including improved bone strength from increased activity, more vertical space, and roosting availability. All of these contribute to better welfare for birds and thus have been required to be constructed in egg laying facilities.

Requirements for perches are as followed and do not drastically differ between enriched cage and non-cage systems:

  • Each hen must be provided with a minimum linear length of 15.0 cm of useable, purpose-designed, elevated perch space
  • Perches must be positioned to minimize fecal fouling of birds, feeders, or drinkers located below them
  • Perches must be constructed of materials that are easily cleaned and do not harbour mites
  • Perches must be designed to minimize injury to hens that are mounting or dismounting as well as to any hens nearby
  • Perches must not extend into nests
  • Perches must be at least 1.9 cm in width or diameter to allow hens to wrap their toes around the perch and balance evenly on it in a relaxed perching posture

While the benefits of perches are undeniable, foot health and potential for injury is of most concern. Be sure to monitor elevation of the perch during the construction or reconstruction phase in order to avoid fractures and deformation of keel bones.

Foraging and Dust Bathing

Having these behaviors available to be performed by hens is imperative for preventing a multitude of incidents such as feather pecking, cannibalism, overgrown claws, and many more.

Foraging consists of pecking and scratching on a solid surface that is associated with searching or ingesting food. Dust bathing is considered to be a behavioral need, which is difficult to accommodate in some housing systems. Both can be accomplished through a system in which feed (for foraging) or another substrate (for dust bathing) is sprinkled intermittently on a pad.

A certain amount of useable space must be dedicated to floor surface for foraging in order to promote these behaviors. Enriched cages must provide each hen with a minimum of 31 cm2 of a flooring surface for foraging. The type of non-cage system will determine the amount of available space with continuous access to litter, but at least 15% of usable space must be litter and promote foraging activities.

Feed with proper nutritional sustenance such as bales of hay, insoluble grit, or oat hulls is encouraged. Other practices include the utilization of smooth surfaces, optimal locale of foraging area to allow access from multiple sides, and inspect foraging material for quality.

The changes necessary in order to abide by the code that his been set by Canada will be financially strenuous and time consuming. Despite these barriers, farmers across Canada are dedicated to creating an ethical egg production environment without sacrificing a supply of eggs for Canadians.   

Further details about can be found about Layers best practice with the article, Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Pullets and Laying Hens.

To learn more about how Ruby360 can help with transitioning to a cage-free or enriched colony solution, see our page, Solutions for Egg Production.

National Farm Animal Care Council – Poultry – Layers Code of Practice. (2017). Nfacc. https://www.nfacc.ca/poultry-layers-code-of-practice#appendixA