Switzerland was the first country to ban the use of cages for housing laying hens on January 1, 1992. Nearly 20 years later, Alois Mettler, an agricultural consultant from Switzerland, suggested that the Swiss egg industry’s experience might provide an insight into what a future without cages might hold for the U.S. egg industry. Mettler presented Switzerland’s country report at the International Egg Commission Conference held just outside of Washington, D.C., this fall.
The 2010 data presented at the conference for Switzerland and the U.S. reflects a startling contrast between the two industries. Over two-thirds of Switzerland’s 2.2 million layers are raised free range with the remaining 31% in non-cage barn systems. Around 50% of the combined shell eggs and egg products used in Switzerland are imported from the EU. The farm level per dozen egg cost in Switzerland was $2.87 compared to $0.63 in the U.S. Mettler said that restrictions on grain imports into Switzerland result in a feed cost double that of the EU.
Anyone who has been around the U.S. poultry industry long enough to have more than just a few gray hairs remembers the days when raising layers and turkeys on range were common place. We also remember the problems with diseases and parasites that are now things only seen in veterinary text books. Mettler’s presentation included photographs of layers on range in Switzerland that bore a strong resemblance to pictures I have seen of the U.S. industry of the 1940s and ’50s. The term “backyard flock” is almost fitting for egg production in Switzerland since no more than 18,000 layers are allowed per farm.
The modern egg industry in the U.S. really began when hens came indoors and were housed in cages. Demand for shell eggs and egg products in Switzerland is only being half filled by domestic production.
Based on the Swiss experience, a cage-free U.S. industry would be substantially smaller and consumers would have to pay a lot more for eggs. Those enriched colonies are looking better every day.