By Angel B. Dukha III
Egg-laying hens, or layers, are often portrayed as roaming freely on a farm. In reality, chickens raised in this way are only a minority in the poultry industry.
Eggs mainly come from two systems of production: industrial egg farms and free-range.
A majority of the eggs come from industrial egg farms where chickens are crammed in battery cages, which contain a minimum of six chickens to maximize housing and egg production.
They are called battery cages because chickens are aligned and cramped inside like batteries. Its diameter is that of a letter size paper (8.5 x 11 inches).
The free-range system is the “gold standard” of raising hens because it allows them to experience a natural environment and refrains from using cages. Chickens are allowed a considerable amount of space to roam, which some farms find impractical and hard to manage.
There’s a third option that balances both systems, providing farmers with a manageable yet humane alternative to housing their poultry.
The cage-free system allows hens to express their natural behavior while being easy to maintain. Chickens are housed in an enclosed area with access to food, water, and the freedom to roam inside.
“That is why we offer cage-free (system), to present an alternative to battery cages. If you are here in Manila and you are producing eggs, you definitely do not have land for free-range, so there is still a more humane alternative,” Cage-free campaign officer Isay Halaba from Animal Kingdom Foundation said.
Animal Kingdom Foundation (AKF) primarily campaigns to alleviate the butchering of dogs in the Philippines. AKF saw that dog meat trade wavs not the only issue in the country, but the living conditions of chickens as well.
The issue with battery cages
According to the Philippine Statistics Authority, 84% of eggs come from battery caged hens while the United States Department of Agriculture NASS (USDA) found that around 81% of eggs produced globally comes from battery cages, which is considered the most affordable and easiest system to maintain.
“(In a battery cage system, poultry farm owners) will just wait for the chickens to lay eggs and it will conveniently roll and be collected (while in) cage-free and free-range, eggs are manually collected. That is why it is (harder) to maintain and why most poultry farmers prefer battery cages,” AKF Cage-free campaign officer Tony Inting explained.
Hens do not leave their battery cages so they experience fatigue: they cannot stand, walk, and stretch their wings because they are not allowed to leave their cramped cages. Battery cages also causes the bones of chickens to become brittle due to lack of exercise, which is not ideal as hens need calcium to facilitate proper egg laying, Tony said.
In battery cages, chickens cannot fully rest, move around, or proper nesting places. Chickens usually live for six to seven years, but in battery cages they only last two years.
Furthermore, eggs and chickens can easily get contaminated with salmonella due to the cramped spaces.
A study from Switzerland showed a decrease in salmonella contamination of eggs in Europe ever since they banned battery cages in 2012, which supports the use of cage-free systems.
There’s a bill in the US state of Michigan that plans to ban battery cages by 2025. It’s not the first to do so, as California, Massachusetts, Oregon, and Washington already require that egg-laying hens be reared at the very least cage-free.
Benefits of going cage-free
Hens in a cage-free system are able to express all their natural behaviors with the help of “enrichment” facilities incorporated in the cage-free system. These are:
Perching. This habit improves bone and muscle strength and reduces stress that could result in injurious pecking of other hens. The cage-free system has allotted areas for perching where chickens can rest and feel secure.
Dust-bathing. Chickens can leave their cage-free housing to lie down in soil to regulate their body temperature and clean their feathers of dirt and parasites. AKF requires at least one-third space floor space for chickens to dust bathe.
Foraging. Hens need to forage to avoid pecking their own feathers or other chickens and maintain good plumage. In battery cages, hens peck the feathers of other chickens because they have nowhere to forage.
Locomotion. Chickens need to stretch, flap their wings, and move around to keep healthy.
Nesting. The most important aspect for chickens is their nesting space. In battery cages, hens tend to store eggs inside their bodies for longer periods because they are picky about where to lay their eggs and prefer quiet and secluded areas. AKF requires one nesting space for every five hens. If the farm cannot provide this, one can be set up in a sq.ft nesting box or by laying down rice husk on one side of the pen which can accommodate up to 120 hens.
“Based on research, chickens are more motivated to lay eggs than to eat. There was an experiment where nesting space and food were placed on opposite sides of a barn and chickens chose to lay eggs than to eat, so the nesting space is really the highlight of (the) cage-free (system),” Inting shared.
AKF has a model farm in Capas, Tarlac which shows their cage-free system housing 800 hens. The model is complete with all the enrichments for the comfort of the chickens.
They believe that the standard requirements of the cage-free system is still manageable, especially for backyard farms, even though they are not as big as known companies.
In addition to the relaxed nature of cage-free housing, the USDA found that cholesterol and calorie content of cage-free eggs are lower compared to battery caged eggs while containing higher levels of vitamins A, D, E, and B2, Tony said.
Promoting the alternative housing environment
Chickens are healthier and more productive in an unrestricted environment, which is why some poultry farm owners and experts are supportive and interested in going cage-free, but are clueless on how to start the transition.
The campaign officers acknowledge the lack of awareness about the idea since it is still new. By attending agriculture related events, they’ve found that some farms are already cage-free, but do not know about or do not abide by AKF’s standards, so the chickens are still housed in tight spaces.
They know that transition may be pricey at first, but once it becomes common, production will be cheaper and poultry farmers will prefer cage-free housing for their chickens, Inting shared.
“(Cage-free) is the sustainable option because when we talk about sustainability, it is not only about profit, it should be holistic in terms of our development. So we do not only think of the profit you will get (but also the proper condition of chickens),” he said.
Raising the standards
While the cage-free system has no minimum area requirement, AKF instructs those who are interested in this kind of housing to allot at least 1 sq.ft and 15 cm of perching space per hen for a single floor housing and 1.5 sq.ft in a multi-tiered housing system based on the standards of previous successful transitions to produce cage-free eggs of various countries like US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Brazil, and Europe.
AKF has submitted a draft of the cage-free standards to the Bureau of Agriculture and Fisheries Standards. Meanwhile, Bureau of Animal Industry Officer-In-Charge, Director Dr. Ronnie Domingo has expressed his support to the advocacy.
“We are already proposing cage-free standards. Although there are already farms who produce cage-free eggs, we want to standardize the usage of cage-free. We base our standards from executed cage-free systems in other countries. Despite the bigger cost of production for the housing, it allows the increase of egg production,” Inting said.
While they do not provide or build the housing system, AKF aims not only to educate consumers, but motivate poultry farmers to do the switch, adding that the standards are to help producers visualize the requirements of going cage-free and to help make the poultry industry better.
There are international brands who have committed to go cage-free and gradually transition their entire supply chain by 2025.
“If they want to be part of that continuous movement, then they should give this housing system a chance. And besides our standard is already being raised. Eventually, it will go that route because there is a global movement,” Halaba encouraged.
Separation of cage-free and conventionally produced eggs can now be seen in groceries as big companies promote the use of cage-free as well.
“It is important that you are aware that there are cage-free brands which are actually big brands. Know the brands, support the brands, promote the brands, let your friends know,” she urged.
They also endorse partner brands and establishments who have committed to the cause and use only cage-free produced eggs.
Tony is optimistic that the consumer market will accept the idea since cage-free is better for chickens while Halaba believes that the system will eventually catch on in the country since consumers are becoming health conscious and cares where their produce comes.
“Eventually once more companies get into it, there will be more demand. It’s already moving in that direction worldwide not only in the Philippines,” she said. (Photos courtesy of AKF)
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This appeared in Agriculture Monthly’s January 2020 issue.