A good breakfast often features a couple of free-range local eggs. But what does “free range” really mean for the hens that laid them?
Whatever it is, consumers want it. More than 69 million dozen free-range eggs were sold in Australian grocery stores last year, and the share of free-range label sales has steadily increased over the past five years. Sales of barn-laid eggs have also risen, but sales of cage eggs have plummeted.
Retailers, alert to the changing consumer demand, have implemented cage egg phase-out policies, choosing alternatives that are seen as kinder to hens. But consumers' ideas of what makes the happiest hens do not always match up with research findings about welfare.
The exact definition of optimal health and welfare conditions is debatable, but what is certain is that modern chickens come from genetic stock that have been bred for cages – conditions that are now rejected by consumers.
Production practices are tuned to maximise profit, but this includes consideration of hen health because the purchase of new stock is a major production cost. Keeping hens healthy saves farmers money.
The types of production systems used worldwide include conventional cages, furnished cages, barns and free-range farming. Conventional cages normally consist of a feeder and drinker, and wire flooring that is slanted to ensure that eggs roll out of the cage to remain clean and undamaged. Hens are kept in groups of up to 12, at stocking densities of 20-25 birds per square metre.
Farmers sometimes choose lower stocking densities than the law requires because this results in fewer eggs being broken and healthier hens. Hens in conventional cages have their beaks trimmed, yet often suffer feather pecking from their cage mates.
Another major problem in conventional cages (which is not necessarily improved by other systems) is leg and keel (sternum) bone breaks. Animal interest groups often highlight the wire flooring of the cages, but the wire flooring actually reduces the incidence of foot infections (called bumblefoot) in the hens.
In the European Union, cages are now required to be furnished, rather than conventional. Furnished cages are larger and have lower stocking densities of about 10 birds per sq m.
The hens also have access to a scratching pad, a perch (which improves leg bone health) and a nesting box. The scratching pad allows hens to exhibit normal scratching and substrate pecking behaviours, and reduces feather pecking behaviours.
Furnished cage hens still suffer from pecking from cage mates despite the presence of the scratching pad, but mitigating this problem further is an active area of research.
Barn egg production is different again. The stocking density is 7-10 birds per sq m or more, and the group sizes are very large, with a single shed potentially containing thousands of birds. The birds are free to move about the barn and are often provided with furnishings to encourage natural behaviours such as scratching and pecking the floor.
Hens need to be trained to use nest boxes, and may be kept in smaller areas in denser groups until they reliably use the nest. Due to the solid flooring and accumulated food and faeces, bumblefoot can be rife in barns. Feather pecking and bone problems are still significant, perhaps exacerbated by the very large group size.
Typical free-range egg production in Australia involves hens kept in a shed that may or may not be furnished with scratch pads or perches. There are nest boxes and daylight access to the outdoors. Stocking density is measured by the total range size, but as layer hens have been bred for cage rearing they are often fearful of the outdoors and rarely use the range available.
Major retailers require a stocking density of 10,000 birds per hectare (one bird per sq m). In contrast, the RSPCA requires a stocking density of no more than 1,500 hens per ha, and the European Union’s limit is 2,500 hens per ha. High densities of hens quickly destroy the pasture forage, so the EU requirement is probably the maximum stocking density that can be maintained on rotated pastures if birds are to be provided with fresh green forage.
Choosing the best option
Welfare research comparing these production scenarios measures the prevalence of stress-related behaviours such as feather pecking and dust-bathing, as well as bone health in hens kept in experimental and in real production settings.
Perhaps surprisingly, the best welfare measures are often found in furnished cages, though the European LayWel project found that management practices, and especially stocking density, were more important than the production system itself.
The surest way to stress a hen is to frequently change its social group, so consumers concerned about the welfare of laying hens should choose eggs from farms with the lowest stocking densities and/or smallest production groups. This means that barn-laid eggs are probably the worst welfare option, and furnished cages and very low stocking density free-range offer the best welfare. Shoppers will need to demand the use of furnished cages and stocking density labels in Australia to facilitate consumer choice.
The egg industry will need to completely overhaul egg production if it is to meet consumer expectations of hen welfare. The genetic stock of modern layer breeds will need to be assessed and modified for characteristics that are better suited to free-range settings. But this will take time to refine.
In the meantime there may be other ways to improve welfare, such as by ensuring that breeder birds and chicks destined for free-range production are raised to prepare them for the free-range, rather than cage, environment.
This could take the industry a long way towards meeting consumer desires for happy hens. But consumers will need to be aware of the real dollar cost of high-welfare food production, so they know what they are paying for when they choose between carton labels at the grocery store.
BriAnne will be taking part in an Ask An Expert Q&A on Twitter from noon to 1pm on Friday, October 30. Head over to Twitter and post your questions about free-range chickens using #AskAnExpert.
BriAnne Addison works for Deakin University and did much of the research for this article in the process of developing an industry-relevant grant proposal. The grant still sits on her hard drive and is not currently funded by any organisation.
Authors: The Conversation Contributor