Enriched housing system makes birds happier

‘It’s a joy seeing the bird doing what they do,’ says egg manager

MOSSLEIGH, Alta. — Natural chicken behaviour includes perching, nesting and scratching.

One of the eight Alberta egg operations that allows for that behaviour within a caged system opened its doors to the public and media Sept. 9.

River Bend Hutterite Colony north of Mossleigh has what is called an enriched system of egg production in its barn, which was built in 2012 and houses 11,000 laying hens.

It puts the colony somewhat ahead of the curve because under Egg Farmers of Alberta policy, no new barns will be built using conventional battery cages as of Jan. 1, 2015.

There are 22 birds per cage in the River Bend barn, which allows each bird a required minimum of 116 sq. inches.

Colony egg manager Walter Decker, who has been in the egg business for16 years, said he sees a difference between the enriched system and the former conventional one.

“It’s easier on the birds. The birds are happier with this system,” he said.

“We can definitely see that they’re better feathered. They keep their feathers better. As far as the health of the bird goes, the welfare, they’re a happier bird.”

The cages, in a tiered arrangement four levels high, each have low-level perches, a blocked-off area for egg laying and a scratching area near the front-mounted feeders. The barn has computerized temperature, humidity and lighting controls.

Even with that technological help, Decker said the enriched system has its challenges.

“It takes better management to run this system successfully than it does a conventional system,” he said.

“When you have bigger groups of birds, there’s more challenges with cannibalism, there’s more competition and you have to make sure the feed and water, everything is just on the button.”

He said egg production levels are similar to those in conventional cage systems, but there is a higher percentage of egg breakage because the eggs have further to roll in the larger cage.

Decker said the per day production in his barn is 97 percent, which means almost every chicken lays one egg a day.

EFA chair Susan Schafers said the province’s 156 egg producing operations are aware of food companies’ shift to using eggs from “cage-free” systems, a reference to battery cages that have three to 10 birds per cage with a minimum 67 sq. inches each.

The policy that moves away from those types of systems was developed over time, said Schafers, who has a free-run system on her own farm.

“It’s about embracing all the new types of housing systems — the loose housing systems, the aviaries, the organic style where you have free run, free range systems,” she said.

“We’re really trying to get producers to look at options that are the best fit for their operation.”

Schafers said research has provided more and better information on chicken production and welfare, which when combined with im-proved cage technology led to the EFA’s new policy.

“(Egg producers) are looking forward to embracing change,” she said.

“Many of the producers spend a lot of time researching, touring other barns, trying to make sure that they’ve got the right thing.”

Modifying or building a new poultry barn is an expensive proposition, and the selected system is expected to last for 20 years or more.

Decker didn’t reveal how much the River Bend barn cost but said it was a major expense.

“So far we have not been able to claim any of that back, but it’s a joy seeing the birds doing what they do,” he said. “There’s lots of benefits.”

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