More space and room to scratch
Hens love to nest, perch, scratch and stretch their wings and the Colony cage environment provides the space and features for them to do so, as they are equipped with “furnishings” like nest boxes, perches and scratch pads. Colonies meet quality and welfare requirements, while also being cheaper, helping maintain the afordability of eggs for consumers. New Zealand’s National Animal Welfare Advisory Committee (NAWAC), a group of welfare experts who provide independent advice to the Ministry for Primary Industries and the Minister, recently evaluated colonies as providing equivalent welfare to barn and free-range systems*. With the introduction of colony cage systems, as endorsed by NAWAC and the Ministry for Primary Industries in the Code of Welfare for Layer Hens, New Zealand is amongst the world’s best practice in egg farming. Colonies are already favoured in the EU and are proposed to be adopted in the US with support from the US Humane Society.
- Colonies provide a minimum of 750 square cm per bird, and like an ‘open plan’ home they have access to the full area with room to move and interact socially with other hens
- Colonies can house up to 60 birds, which scientific research shows is an ideal number per flock
- Colonies have reserved areas for nesting, where most hens will lay their eggs each morning
- Perching areas are available for resting, which hens use at night
- There is a pad for scratching and pecking
- As in any egg farming method, food and water are always readily available
- A continuous moving belt captures and removes faecal matter for hygiene and welfare.
New Zealand Welfare science
As part of an extensive review of colony cage systems previous to their adoption in the new Code of Welfare, a New Zealand-based study by the EPF, in conjunction with leading animal welfare experts from Bristol University and the Ministry for Primary Industries (previously known as MAF), evaluated the welfare and health implications of colonies with positive results. Overall, the research showed:
- Colony furnishings, such as the scratch pads, nests and perches, are well-used by hens
- There is little difference in the physical health of colony cage and free-range hens, with the exception of non-beak trimmed hens in either group, which were more likely to have lower feathering scores, and free-range hens which were more likely to show signs of past bone fractures
- Colony cage hens have lower mortality rates than cage, barn or free-range hens
- Beak-trimmed colony hens have comparably low levels of Faucal Corticosterone (a stress indicator) as free-range hens.
Transitioning to colonies
The EPF is pleased that colony cage systems have been identified in the new Code of Welfare as a welfare-friendly and sustainable solution, however the time frame for moving from cages to colonies will be extremely challenging. While conventional cages will not be able to be used from the end of 2022, in real terms the phased approach means a much tighter four-to six-year window, which will be very difficult for many farmers to achieve.
The EPF has commissioned several independent reviews of the economic impact of the transition to colonies, both for the industry and for consumers. For most cage farmers, they will have to rebuild their farms from scratch or near it, investing many hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars each into what will effectively be an entirely new operation. Preliminary estimates indicate a cost to the 42 cage egg farmers of up to $150m.
You can read these reports individually, or a summary here:Nimmo-Bell Ltd economic analysis, which was commissioned by the EPF to look at the economic impact of the changes proposed in the Draft Code LECG market dynamics analysis, also commissioned by the EPF, is an investigation into egg market dynamics and the impact of changed production requirements.
The alternatives of converting to barn or free-range operations are more costly, with both higher capital costs and operational costs, and the similar need to move or entirely redevelop farming facilities. Once established, the day-to-day operations of barn and free-range production systems are also more labour-intensive and therefore more expensive, whereas the bulk of consumers are seeking a more affordable egg.
New Zealand research company Qzone also undertook an independent study to understand the impact farming types have on people’s egg purchasing decisions. This report found that:
- A third of consumers say that farming methods affect their egg purchase choices, while another third say it has affect but other considerations are important, and a further third say that farming methods do not affect their purchase at all.
- By and large there is a positive reaction to colony farming.
- Acceptance and preference for the colony option comes from right across the egg buying spectrum. Some people who currently “reject cage eggs” do not reject colony farmed eggs. Existing moderate cage egg users expressed a desire to purchase eggs from other housing systems but were constrained by the household budget.
- Price will have an effect. While many shoppers express some flexibility on price; around 22% express zero or little tolerance for a price increase. They are the high volume caged-egg buyers. The move from cage to colonies draws widespread support while around one sixth of the market, the real price-driven end, say they’d be uncomfortable with a price of, say $3.95 per dozen (a move of 50 cents above regular cage eggs).