In 1909, the average hen in the United States laid 83 eggs a year. Modern, commercial hybrid hens lay 300 to 320 eggs a year, and they consume less feed. But there are additional costs.
A recent article, Breeding to Prevent Cannibalism in Hens, says, “Decades of breeding to make the white leghorn hens that lay most of the nation’s eggs more productive have also boosted the birds’ territorial instincts, making them prone to pecking attacks so fierce they’re often called ‘cannibalism.’” When these same high-production strains of chickens are in a cage-free environment (where they can have contact with many more birds), will there be more cannibalism? Probably, if they’re still closely confined in buildings — but that doesn’t mean keeping hens in cages is a better option. There are several rational techniques to raise healthy chickens that produce healthful food.
Raise Chickens in a Natural Environment
A robotics engineer in England can predict which flocks of chickens are likely to become cannibalistic. Computer System Counters Hen Horrors credits Bas Rodenburg, an animal behavior and welfare researcher from the Netherlands, as saying, “It's really important to stimulate healthy foraging early on, because birds who can't forage the normal way — by pecking the ground in search of food — are likely to peck at other things instead, including their neighbors.”
Chickens don’t learn natural behaviors when flocks of thousands of chicks are housed in barns with controlled light, wire mesh or concrete under their feet, and no green forage. They must be raised in a more natural environment, preferably on pasture after they’ve grown past the brooding stage.
Choose Breeds That Aren’t Selected Only for High Production
Chickens are more complex than many people realize, and breeders can select for all types of traits: physical, production and temperament. Backyard poultry-keepers and small farmers need to choose breeds and strains that are more balanced. Chicken can be all sorts of colors, sizes and shapes — and still be productive. It’s not reasonable to expect all hens to lay 320 eggs during their first year of laying eggs, but heritage breeds can be selected for egg production to increase productivity while maintaining traits such as calm temperament and ability to forage.
Organic Doesn’t Mean Much Anymore
A label doesn’t seem to give a clear indication of what really is in the package, but if you buy food from local producers, you can visit the farm to have a better idea of the environment the animals are kept in. If you think those cheap “organic” eggs from the grocery store are from hens that have lived their lives romping through pastures and scratching for seeds, take a look at this video. It doesn’t show those worn-out hens in little cages (so you can watch it even if you’re squeamish), but it has some eye-opening footage of “organic” poultry houses.
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