Cage-Free Eggs: Transitioning to a New Environment

| 10/22/2010 10:35:31 AM

Tags: chickens, eggs,

cage-free pullets 

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.

holly jones_4
10/29/2010 4:24:41 PM

I just read t. brandt's comment and thought I'd give a nannycrat opinion. Americans do NOT produce food right any more. The quality of readily available food is so low these days because food producers and consumers have been working to the bottom line. Consumer health, health care costs, pesticide, hormone and antibiotic pollution, worker safety are all affected. At the very bottom of this list let's put the dignity of a chicken. So. What dignity does a chicken have? None. You own it. You can kick it around, pull its feathers off, use it for sadistic entertainment, neglect to feed it. You can keep it indoors in a tiny cage, debeaked, unable to run or fly, feed it pesticides and hormones and antibiotics all its life. The second list of abuses will give you a better bottom line, I guess. Your children, exposed to either set of abuses, will learn to see animals and other people as mainly tools. They will become the users of tomorrow as you are one of the users of today. Today 80% of the "organic" market is corporate; your kids will have the satisfaction of increasing that number to 99%. I bet you support the NAIS. You should, you know.

t brandt
10/28/2010 9:15:00 PM

I keep a few chickens around the place mainly because they're so entertaining and they also happen to give me a few eggs every day too. But if you're going to raise them commercially, ie- actually make aliving at it, then you've got to go for productive efficiency. Why run a business at less than optimal conditions? And that means optimizing population density, among other things. The problem with "organic" is that it just doesn't give the higher yields necessary to feed the growing human population. BTW, Patrick- you're absolutely right. The govt screws everything up- we don't even fight wars properly anymore-and now the Nannycrats are trying to louse up the last thing Americans do right- produce food.

carmen ortiz
10/28/2010 7:27:00 AM

I'm confused Patrick 28, which are the "small truths" mixed with which "contrived falsehoods"? Is it the extremely over packed huge building in the video, or the tiny door for the chickens to exit the building? Or are the "contrived falsehoods" the fact that those corporations are allowed to sell the eggs produced under those conditions as organic. Is that how you produce your eggs? What is your definition of older breeds "need more space to prevent cannabilism"? Is it actually allowing them enough room to move? The only reason you can possibly be offended by the article and the video is if you see yourself, otherwise you would be telling us how it is to compete with those corporations. Is your comment the "outright lies" you are referring to?

john sealander
10/28/2010 12:09:16 AM

I think it is a mistake to avoid modern breeding as well as extreme to assume that if "It's not heritage it's nasty factory farming". It's how they're raised and treated, not the breed. We have 156 birds completely free ranging our five acres, plus ajoining forest every day. Probably cover 15-20 acres daily. No lights, safely closed in their coops at night. Our birds are free, well cared for and apparently happy and the eggs show it. We have the preferred brand in our region-in 24 months. All natural, no animal by-products (except what they catch themselves!)no chemicals of any type and we make a nice profit at $3.25 per dozen, and sell out every week. 50 cents to $1.50 lower than the 'certified Organic"(see video in the main article) in the grocery and only 24 to 48 hours old when we deliver them. If you crack'm today, they will be Grade AA. I will agree, the problem is huge factory farms that treat their animals like machines. I too " would love to see thousands more very small producers offering this quality of egg, not just organic, not just pasture but ethical." it's about treating your stock humanely with dignity, respect and appreciation. You can taste the 'love' in the food.

10/27/2010 6:48:23 PM

While I see the point about the modern birds producing more eggs at a better conversion rate, I think the point might have been missed. Corperations and business are out to make money, true, however,is pushing a creature to produce more, for profit ethical. Using genitics and any means possible to get every extra ounce of millk and one more egg is not in the best intrest of the creature involved. By allowing a more natural experince and taking what is available from the animal, you show respect for not only the farmer but for the creature.I keep a couple dozen chickens, with a rooster. They range over my property all day,(2.5 acres)and enjoy mixed feed in the coop. My customers buy my eggs because they feel good about the life my chickens are living. They have not been clipped, there are mixed ages and the new ones hatched out, grow up in the flock. Older birds are done in as they show poor health. I do not use lights to keep prodction up in the winter. Yes, I do not make much money at $4. a doz but I , my customers and my chickens all sleep well at night. I would love to see thousands more very small producers offering this quality of egg, not just organic, not just pasture but ethical. I know they are haveing a great chicken life and that makes my life better. Wendy

john sealander
10/27/2010 4:37:03 PM

I'm not clear what Patrick_28 is fired up about, but I'll agree with him on one thing...when I comes to chickens there is a lot of manure floating around! I have been producing free range eggs for the local market about 2 years. We are doing well with modern birds (Gold Comets); gentle, produce at 300 eggs, excellent feed conversion, easy to work with; pleasant birds. We buy'm as started pullets 'cause I can't raise chicks to 18 weeks for the price he sells them for. And we get eggs right away. Self appointed experts (who have read all the books and never touched a chick) tell me that you can't free range birds with trimmed beaks. My supplier only sells them that way and I have some birds approaching 2 years who have free ranged all their lives-guess they didn't get the memo. Most 'Heritage chickens' were produced before WW I to do what? Improve feed conversion, increase production, reduce disease, increase easy of handling,etc. Well the breeders kept going and everyone else stopped and thinks 'cause they are old fashioned they are better. Sometimes that's true and sometimes not. I shop at Lehman's in Ohio, I read Grit (both the mag and the newsletter for pastured poultry)but sometimes I also shop at Tractor Supply and Wal-mart. Depends. "Cannibalism" is just a function of space. Give'm more room. If you want some pretty birds to play in your yard, 'Heritage' is fine. Kind of like an aquarium, pointless, but pretty. A hobby. But don't go there if you need a profit. I do.

10/27/2010 1:05:28 PM

What I hear is one more person telling me they are entitled. No one is entitled! The organic regulations are a mess, they always will be! Once you get the government getting in the way of any kind of free enterprise you come up with a mess, not one program the government runs works well, most do not really work at all! I also find this article to be very misleading about chickens. Modern breeds of chickens, like sex-links are more hardy, convert feed better, forage well, and get fewer diseases than any of the heritage breeds. They are better chickens, even the modern White Leghorn hybrid breeds are a better bird to raise than the heritage birds, for the same reasons. Cannabilism is not hard to control with proper feed and conditions, something you have to do if you want to make a profit raising eggs or broilers. Some of the most problematic birds to raise are the older breeds, poor conversion, need more space to prevent cannabilism. The older breeds are not nice to each other either, they are just as territorial, if not more so! This article greatly bothers me because it uses some small truths and mixes it with great falsehoods, then presents the whole mess as facts, instead of the mostly contrived falsehoods it really represents. Having raised chickens for 55 years, I am offended by what is portrayed in this article. Lots of half truths and outright lies laced in between a few facts!

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