Dutch egg producers, researchers seek optimum layer housing
Activists, retailers, producers and researchers are engaged in an interactive process to design housing systems for layers that will meet the needs of all parties.
Egg producers in the Netherlands are trying to cope with a market place and legislative environment that have demanded changes to how hens are raised, stated Dr. Ferry Leenstra, Wageningen University, the Netherlands. Speaking to the audience at the Forum on the Future of the American Egg Industry, she said that Dutch egg producers first had to adapt to a voluntary retailer ban on cage-produced eggs in 2004, eight years before the EU cage ban went into effect.
Then, in 2009, legislation was enacted in the Netherlands which mandated that eggs would no longer be produced in enriched cages by 2021.
The Netherlands is a very small country in terms of square miles, but it is one of the largest agricultural exporters in the world. Holland has around seven times as many people per square mile as the United States. It also has lots of poultry and livestock, with ten times the poultry density, nine times the cattle density, and over 40 times the swine density of the U.S. Along with the high concentration of humans and animals in Holland has come a number of concerns regarding environmental issues and animal welfare. One example of the impact of environmental concerns on egg producers are the costs associated with disposal of layer manure. Leenstra said that about one third of the manure is exported, one third gets processed into horticultural products for export and one third is burned to generate electricity. She said that there is a net cost to the egg producer for all three manure disposal options.
In Holland, a move away from conventional cages into enriched cages did not satisfy activists groups. Egg producers are left with the task of trying to please a number of parties with conflicting agendas and still trying to make money producing eggs.
Reflexive Interactive Design
Leenstra stated that a lot of housing research is aimed at repairing problems with the housing system that is dominant at the time, but that in the Netherlands they are trying to think outside the box to find the best way to house layers.
“We are trying a new kind of integration of science and social sciences to get a more holistic and interactive approach which we call reflexive interactive design, or RIO,” Leenstra said. RIO is a fusion of hard science and social sciences which take into account societal issues. “What is important is complete interaction between all stakeholders, and that we use the methodology of structured design coming from industrial design. It is to synthesize the needs of all involved that gives you new insights, so that you can overcome structural causes of sustainability issues.”
Leenstra explained the need to overcome “wicked links” in housing systems, such as the increased disease risk associated with free-range systems or the increased greenhouse gas potential for non-cage housing when compared to conventional cages.
The process that Leenstra described sounded almost like doing focus groups with stakeholders to determine the real hot button issues, and then design a system to accommodate these. Some of the requirements that have been established with RIO are a minimum of 341 square inches (2,200 square centimeters) per bird. There have to be separate areas provided for different activities such as a nesting area for laying, a foraging area, and a roosting area. Because of consumer desires, outdoor access must be provided, but they have to be able to control disease risk.
Because these requirements differ so much from what has been provided in traditional housing systems, Leenstra said that it is necessary to start from scratch designing a new system. She said that all of the current housing systems being used by industry have some sustainability or bird welfare issues. The idea of RIO is to determine all of the issues and requirements for the birds, activists and the environment and to design systems that take care of all of these concerns.
Leenstra presented two layer housing systems that have been developed and implemented in the Netherlands using the RIO concept. One system is the Rondeel, which is marketed by a subsidiary of Vencomatic. Each Rondeel houses 30,000 birds with nesting and roosting areas in the center. Birds can leave the central indoor section of the Rondeel and go out into an outdoor covered area that has artificial grass followed by an outer ring with dirt and wood chips. There is a lot of natural light in the indoor area. Hens are placed at 238 square inches per bird (6.5 hens per square meter) of interior space. There are just a couple of farms with Rondeels, but Leenstra reported that that mortality has been very low and production is up to standard for the Lohmann Brown Lite breed being used. She said that there is no need to beak trim hens in these systems.
The other RIO-inspired system that Leenstra reported on is a Plantation system being used on one organic farm. She said that a lot of natural light is used in the enclosed part of the system, and that a lot of differentiation exists between the separate areas of the housing system. Each Plantation is designed to house 6,000 hens.
Access to the retail market
Retailers agreed eight years ago to stop selling eggs from cage house hens. This control of access to consumers protects cage-free producers from lower cost competition from cage housed hens. Leenstra made the argument that since demand for eggs is famously price inelastic, that egg consumption would not drop much as prices have risen to cover the higher production costs of cage-free production.
Leenstra said that in the Netherlands egg producers need to think more about total profit rather than cost per egg. Some of the alternative housing systems will have significantly higher cost per egg, but because of the potential benefits of branding and access to retail markets these systems could yield higher profits.
From a marketing standpoint, she said that these housing systems can be more than just functional for the hens; they can interesting and even “sexy” for consumers, helping to stimulate interest and demand for eggs produced from them. Leenstra said that different housing designs may appeal more or less to different sub groups of consumers and have greater branding potential.