Flock welfare is essential to the sustainability of the poultry industry

Animal welfare is in the eye of the beholder. Some consumers are willing to pay more for products from companies that have reputations that align with their beliefs.
calendar icon 8 July 2020
clock icon 7 minute read

The concept of animal welfare is shaped, in-part, by the ethics of what constitutes a quality life. With a heavy animal activist influence, the consumer is the primary stakeholder driving the dynamics of change in how livestock and poultry are raised.

Sustainability in context

Sustainability is defined as “the ability to be maintained at a certain rate or level” but today the term is used in reference to the capacity for humans to make changes that do not negatively impact the environment. In other words, meeting today’s needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs. Successful corporations must be committed to being good stewards of the environment and of the social landscapes in which they operate. Animal welfare an important stewardship anchor in the social landscape of the poultry industry.

Animal welfare is oftentimes housed under the same umbrella as sustainability because improvements in both are viewed as progress towards the future. In other words, any improvement in animal welfare also improves the sustainability of production or less impact on the surrounding environment. However, the relationships between poultry production and welfare and the impact of production on the environment are complex and difficult to balance.

Environmental stewardship is not animal welfare stewardship

Environmental stewardship, animal welfare, and corporate sustainability commitments may not always align. Ultimately, consumer preferences and affordability will shape the evolution of poultry industry sustainability and welfare commitments. However, products that are produced more sustainably in terms of carbon footprint and environmental impact may tip the corporate sustainability scale.

Animal welfare is essential to the sustainability of the poultry industry because healthy birds will consumers a healthy product. Independent of consumer demands, it is the corporate responsibility of the poultry industry to assure poultry are raised in high welfare standards.


The laying hen industry can be used as a cautionary tale in quick decisions to change housing system designs without the scientific validation of the housing system on all parameters of laying hen production, including hen welfare, environmental impact, egg quality and safety, personnel health and safety, and economics. Battery cage systems have been banned since 2012 in Europe and are currently banned in two states in the U.S., California and Massachusetts. While cage-free systems provide the birds more space to express the full spectrum of their natural behaviors, some housing system designs can decrease welfare. One of the main hazards to laying hens raised in cage-free systems is the potential for damage to their keel bones. The keel bone also provides the laying hen with assistance in respiration and important behavioral expressions, such as wing flapping, and damage to the keel bone is detrimental to the bird. Laying hens have low muscle mass, so less of their keel bone is covered by breast muscle, leaving their keel bone more vulnerable to damage compared to broilers (Hardin et al., 2019). Some cage-free system designs can cause keel bone damage and fractures in laying hens. Depending on skeletal integrity, keel bone damage can occur when laying hens fall or collide with conspecifics while navigating within the housing system, especially in aviaries (Stratmann et al., 2015).The incidence rate of keel bone fractures in laying hens can range up to 85%, and these fractures can be extremely painful to the birds (Casey-Trott and Widowski, 2016). While much progress has been made in the past few years, there is still a need for more research to identify the most suitable cage-free systems for laying hens.

Advantages and disadvantages of conventional cage, furnished cage, non-cage, and outdoor systems on key laying hen welfare indicators
Advantages and disadvantages of conventional cage, furnished cage, non-cage, and outdoor systems on key laying hen welfare indicators

High welfare systems vs. low welfare systems © AVMA summary of Laywel Final Report

Enriched colony (furnished cage) systems and outdoor (pasture) systems are also alternative laying hen housing systems. While conventional cage systems do not have enrichments such as nest boxes, perches, and dust baths, they do allow for better management of individual hen health. On the other side, cage-free and outdoor systems may promote negative welfare by increasing the incidence of bumblefoot, endo- and ecotoparasites, and mortality. The advantages and disadvantages of conventional cage, furnished cage, non-cage, and outdoor systems on key laying hen welfare indicators can be seen in a figure from the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA, Figure 1).

Organic production

Organic animal production is often grouped in with sustainability, which may lead consumers to think that animal raised organically have better welfare. While many organic poultry systems do maintain high welfare standards, maintaining good health and welfare on organic poultry farms can be challenging. This means that that husbandry, or knowledge and technical skills, is crucial for managing welfare issues. The three major challenges for organic poultry production have been identified as: 1) the management of birds in outdoor systems, 2) the limited use of conventional preventative medication for vaccination and disease treatment, and 3) the quality and availability of organic feed (Van De Weerd, 2009). Further research and accessible information is needed to establish the best management practices in organic poultry systems.


Environmental enrichments are increasing on broiler farms in the U.S. An enrichment is any stimuli or activity that promotes positive engagement with the goal to encourage the birds to display a wider range of natural behaviors and improves welfare. Most enrichments on broiler farms today are structural, that aim to promote activity. However, many structural enrichments are difficult to keep clean, may harbor pathogens, and require additional labor during cleanout. Also, there are other forms of enrichment that may stimulate other positive effects on broilers, such as sensory (e.g. visual or olfactory) and foraging (food-related) enrichments. More research is needed to identify novel enrichments that are the best option for both the birds and the producer.

The more animal welfare standards that are scientifically validated as a threshold to which poultry welfare is positively or negatively affected, the more the sustainable U.S. poultry industry will be.


American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA). AVMA Issues – A Comparison of cage and non-cage systems for sousing laying hens. Accessed 19 November 2019 at https://www.avma.org/KB/Resources/Reference/AnimalWelfare/Pages/AVMA-issues-A-Comparison-of-Cage-and-Non-Cage-Systems-for-Housing-Laying-Hens.aspx

Casey-Trott, T. M. and T. M. Widowski. 2016. Behavioral differences of laying hens with fractured keel bones within furnished cages. Frontiers in Veterinary Science. 42: 1-8.

Hardin, E., F.L.S. Castro, and W. K. Kim. 2019. Keel bone injury in laying hens: the prevalence of injuries in relation to different housing systems, implications, and potential solutions. World’s Poultry Science. 2019. 75:285-292.

Laywel. 2006. Welfare implications of changes in production systems for laying hens. Accessed 19 November, 2019 at https://www.laywel.eu/web/pdf/deliverable%2071%20welfare%20assessment.pdf. .

Stratmann, A., E. K. F. Froehlich, S., S.G. Gebhardt-Henrich,, A. Harlander-Matauschek, H. Wurbel, and M. J. Toscano. 2015. Modification of aviary design reduces incidence of falls, collisions and keel bone damage in laying hens. Applied Animal Behaviour Science. 165:112-123.

Van De Weerd, H. A., R. Keatinge, and S. Roderick. 2009. A review of key health-related welfare issues in organic poultry production. World’s Poultry Science Journal. 65:649-684.

Dr. Shawna Weimer

Poultry Extension Assistant Professor at University of Maryland
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