Innovations in Hen Housing

With the release of Unnaturally Delicious today, I thought I'd initiate a series of posts on the book over the next week or two.  

One of the main purposes of the posts is to share some pictures associated with the chapter contents. Originally the publishers planned to include the photos in the book, but decided to pull them at the last minute.  The upside is that I have clearance to reproduce a variety of interesting pictures associated with the book content, and I plan to do that here on the blog.  

The second chapter of the book talks about some innovative housing systems for egg laying hens.  What can be done to improve the welfare of laying hens which typically live in a crowded wire cage.  Why not just go cage free? 

Typical cage-free systems (often called barn or aviary systems) provide hens with much more space than do the cage systems. The barns allow the birds to exhibit natural behaviors like scratching and dust bathing, and they provide nesting areas for laying eggs. But they are far from the paradise many people envision. As Silva put it, “Cage-free isn’t what most people think it is.”

No hen housing system is superior to another in all respects, and there are tradeoffs and costs with each.  A really nice illustration of this is via the results of the research project that goes by the name Coalition for Sustainable Egg Supply.  I highly recommend their visuals that compare how different systems rate along dimensions related to food safety, animal welfare, environment, etc.   

In any event, one relatively new system in the U.S. is the so-called enriched colony cage system that attempt to provide some of the benefits of cage free without some of the downsides. I write:

Unlike the barren environment in the battery cages, the enriched colony cages have the mat area that allows the hens to exercise their natural urge to scratch. Also available are perches that allow the hens to get up off the wire floor. In addition to the nests, the perches are a popular sleeping area for the hens. Running underneath the colony cage is a conveyor belt that removes the manure and keeps it away from the birds. The enriched colony cages aren’t perfect, and some animal advocacy groups think they don’t go far enough. But they’re an innovative compromise.

Here's a picture of the housing system from the cage manufacturer Big Dutchman.

Of course, we can go even further still.  One group of Dutch researchers has been working to create a system—the Roundel (the eggs are sold in a circular, biodegradable carton under the name Rondeel).  As I write:

The Roundel is the Ritz Carlton of hen living. Hens have virtually all the freedoms and amenities they’d want from the wild but with ample feed and without any of the dangers from predators or hardships from adverse weather. The Roundel also comes with a luxury hotel price.

Here's a cool image of the Roundel system from the Wageningen UR Livestock Research group.  

The chapter also discusses some animal welfare trading schemes that might also offer innovative ways to improve farm animal living conditions at a price we're willing to pay. To find out more, you'll have to see the book.