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Welfare Organisations Split over Layer Housing Law

by 5m Editor
6 July 2011, at 9:28am

OREGON, US - This month, the Legislature and governor approved a bill that mandates farmers must switch to enriched colony cages and quit using conventional battery cages for all eggs sold in Oregon by 2026.

Greg Satrum rubs his hands with sanitizer just inside the hen-house door and the nearest hundred chickens pull their heads back into dark wire cages, race-car red combs flopping across their skulls and beaks, reports Oregon Live. When he stands still, the hens quickly rejoin thousands of other white leghorns, stretching their necks through a slit to a feed trough mechanically filled five times a day and dully lit by a long red bulb.

Mr Satrum, owner of Willamette Egg Farms south of Canby and president of the Northwest Poultry Council, said: "We keep it dim because it reduces their aggression."

Each of the 18,000-square-foot buildings house 60,000 chickens in conventional cages stacked three-high and lining aisles nearly the length of a football field. The birds stand shoulder to shoulder in cages the size of a file cabinet drawer. Beneath each layer is a wide gray belt that catches droppings and moves them during cleaning every other day. Narrow conveyor belts and mechanical ladders carry the eggs from the barns to the adjacent processing plant.

Under a new law, these cages will be torn down.

By 2026, hens must be moved into enriched colony cages with more space and more perks, like perches, scratching pads and nesting boxes. The law also requires farmers selling eggs in the state to follow care standards set by a board of scientific advisors for the American Humane Association, the United States' first organisation to certify animal products as humane.

Oregon is one of the first states to implement space standards for egg-laying hens, just a few weeks behind Washington. Regional egg industry leaders accepted the new law as a compromise, but animal rights organizations are divided. The Oregon Humane Society supports the changes while the Humane Society of the United States says the new law does not do enough.

A group backed by the Humane Society of the United States, Oregonians for Humane Farms, is gathering signatures for a ballot initiative to eliminate chicken cages altogether, arguing that the law creates an illusion of reform and only barely improves the quality of life for hens.

Cage-free life

Mr Satrum pulls blue coveralls and gray sanitised booties over his jeans and polo before sliding on a white hairnet, looking more like a doctor suiting up for surgery than a third generation egg farmer inspecting his flock.

Oregon Live reports that inside one 13,000-square-foot barn, he raises his voice over the clucks and caws of 7,300 cage-free Rhode Island red hens scratching, eating grains from round feed dishes or perching on metal tubing just above their peers. These hens lay organic cage-free eggs, which account for less than one per cent of all eggs sold nationwide, according to a 2009 report of United Egg Producers, a coalition of US egg farmers.

The air is filled with the hum of large white fans and the sharp scent of feces becoming methane and other gases. Mr Satrum says the smell is strongest in cage-free barns because manure gathers under a grated floor until it can be cleaned when the hens are euthanised near the end of their two-year lives. Only a few exit through several small doorways to scratch in the dirt of a fenced outdoor yard before they are closed in for the night.

Even though Mr Satrum says he is happy to replace the cramped conventional cages for the colony cages, he does not want to go totally cage-free.

Despite the perks of a cage-free life, Mr Satrum says these birds live half as long as their caged peers.

He said: "They're stressed. You have thousands of hens in the same place and they never get to know each other."

Hens can learn to recognise only so many neighbours, Mr Satrum told Oregon Live. Cage-free chickens become more aggressive because they cannot develop a pecking order that signals which hens eat first and those that wait. In colony cages, the hens have fewer roommates so they can form a more stable social hierarchy.

Cage-free hens also waste more feed and lay fewer eggs, he says. He warns that those additional costs could encourage producers to recoup losses by cutting corners in other ways, such as not providing adequate ventilation, reducing quality of feed or not following proper sanitation and handling procedures.

The new law accounts for these factors of hen welfare, he says, while the ballot measure only addresses space.

Under the law or the initiative, Oregonians will pay more for eggs at the store.

James Hermes, poultry specialist and Oregon extension agent, said the profit margin on eggs is small, so there is little room to buffer buyers from increased production costs.

The switch to colony cages will cost $14 to $30 a hen, or $42 million to $90 million statewide, he says. Going cage-free would be even more. For consumers, Mr Hermes says, "The cost to go cage-free is certainly going to be more than a few cents a dozen. I know a producer in southern Oregon that sells eggs at $8 a dozen so he can make any money at all."

Oregonians for Humane Farms, which is collecting signatures for a cage-free ballot initiative, says the moral cost of America's cheap eggs is too high.

Kelly Peterson is confident her group will collect all 87,123 signatures needed to appear on the 2012 ballot.

"The new law obviously takes way too long to implement for even the most modest of space allotments," Peterson told Oregon Live.

Instead of the 2026 deadline in the new law, the ballot initiative would mandate that all egg and egg products sold in Oregon, including table eggs, cake mixes and noodles, come from cage-free hens by 2019. Some farmers worry prices would jump as they scramble to meet the deadline.

Sharon Harmon, executive director of the Oregon Humane Society, hopes egg producers make the switch to colonies sooner rather than later but she is uncertain that cage-free is the best for chickens. Hen welfare is more complex than just giving the birds more space, she says. "The science supports the enriched colony. But you just can't ask a chicken what she thinks."

Colony cages

Mr Satrum ordered a colony cage from Germany to show visitors interested in the new law and to observe the hens' social dynamics, reports Oregon Live. A high school basketball player could lie down in an empty colony cage and still have room at his sides. On one end, two hens poke their heads through a red rubber curtain around the nesting area while 58 others perch, feed or scratch.

Grabbing a handful of feed from the trough on the cage, Mr Satrum tosses it through the bars onto a scratching pad. One hen that has been lying down is pushed aside as two others leap from their perch and jostle for the feed.

"He said: "They have room to act like a chicken but don't have the negative problems of cage-free, like hen health issues and sanitation."

Poultry researcher, Dr Hermes, agrees.

Research shows that birds in cages, whether conventional or colony, tend to be healthier physically because aggression and some diseases are more prevalent in the large crowds of cage-free operations, he says. Yet, it is difficult to say conclusively whether chickens "miss" taking dust baths or scratching if they have never had the opportunity.

Because reproduction is not necessary for survival, he says, chickens will only lay eggs when they are well fed, healthy and not overly stressed.

"I've been working with chickens for close to 40 years and I don't know what a happy chicken is," he told Oregon Live. "The assumption is that hens that lay lots of eggs are happy."