Until approximately five years ago, all of Midwest Poultry Services' hens were housed in conventional cages. Bob Krouse, president, Midwest Poultry Services, and former United Egg Producers chairman, said that the company had existing supermarket accounts who wanted to be able to offer their retail customers eggs from cage-free hens and that they preferred to get these eggs from their regular supplier. Krouse explained that even if a grocery account was only buying a pallet of cage-free eggs per week, a supplier might lose the sale of 19 pallets of regular eggs if they didn't supply the pallet of cage-free eggs.

"We thought we needed to get in the cage-free business, because we didn't want to be telling our customers that we can provide your regular eggs but you need to get the cage-free eggs from someone else," said Krouse. "We just thought it was part of what we had to do to be an egg supplier so that customers could get all their eggs from one place."

Automated Egg Producers

Midwest Poultry Services has operated a layer farm in Northeastern Indiana at the current home of Automated Egg Producers since 1972, but all of the original layer houses have been replaced in the last few years. The farm currently houses nearly 2.3 million hens. Approximately 2 million of these hens are kept in four buildings, which were built between 2010 and 2012 and are equipped with enrichable cages.

There are seven cage-free houses on the farm housing 285,000 hens. The largest cage-free houses are 50 feet by 520 feet, and these house 47,000 hens each. All of the cage-free houses are on one side of the egg processing facility, and the enrichable cage houses are on the other side. This layout allows for eggs to be processed separately, but they are currently comingled because the cage-free eggs are brown and the cage-housed hens produce white eggs, so they can be sorted out by the grader.

Cage-free floor plans

Automated Egg Producers' cage-free houses have aviaries where the feeders, waterers, perches and nest boxes for the hens are located on multiple levels. Aviaries allow for better utilization of space than does a traditional floor pen for housing hens, so aviaries allow producers to house more hens within a given building's footprint. Automated Egg Producers has aviaries from Vencomatic and Big Dutchman.

All of the cage-free birds on the farm are Lohmann Brown Lite birds. The Vencomatic aviary is a terrace style system that is three levels high and open at all three levels. Throughout the laying cycle, the aviary is kept open and allows free access to the floor area between the aviary rows. Birds can move freely above and below the aviary to go across the width of the house. The house is divided into five 100-foot-long sections or pens which house 9,400 hens each.

The large house with the Big Dutchman aviary system is also divided into 100-foot-long sections. But each of these sections is subdivided further because of the way the aviary is designed. Hens cannot travel across the width of the house either by going under or over the aviary in the Big Dutchman house. This reduces the number of hens in a pen to 3,000 hens.



The entire flock moves back into the system for the night, and then are free to leave the system every morning. WATCH VIDEO | All photos courtesy Big Dutchman


Managing cage-free houses

Bob Wiley, complex manager, Automated Egg Producers, and Steve Taylor, production manager, Midwest Poultry Services, both stressed that the key to managing hens in a cage-free environment is to get them started off right in the pullet house and the laying house. They said that in conversations with cage-free producers in Europe they learned that it was essential for pullet housing to be matched with the layer housing. Producers just can't raise pullets in cages and expect them to be able to adapt to a cage-free laying house. Taylor said, "If you don't grow them in a system that matches your layer house, you will be in trouble."

Cage-free birds require more labor and management time than cage-housed birds, and this time isn't just spent picking up floor eggs; it should be spent preventing eggs from being laid on the floor. Wiley explained that the key for managing cage-free birds is getting them started right. Hens need to go back into the aviary at night and not sleep on the floor. Walking the birds those first evenings that the hens are in the layer house to get them to go to bed in the aviary is important.

Another important part of preventing floor eggs is to pick up any floor eggs in a timely manner. Seeing eggs on the floor can be a trigger for other hens to lay their eggs on the floor. Managing cage-free layers is a lot like managing chicken or turkey breeders.

Taylor said, "The more you work the birds the more you train them to go up into the system to lay their eggs in the nests, and the fewer floor eggs you get, the more efficient your operation is going to be. The most important night of the hen's life is the first night here [on the layer farm], because if she spends her first night on the floor, she will spend the next night on the floor. It is all about survivability; if she wakes up on the floor, then she is alive and will try to spend the next night on the floor."

In addition to walking the birds in the evening to train the hens to go into the aviary, Automated Egg Producers also employs a lighting program to let the birds know that night is coming. The sunset features in the lighting system alerts the birds that nightfall and bedtime are coming. This lighting program also has to be coordinated with the pullet grower to get the full benefit from it.



  Nests are located at the highest level for the hens to lay their eggs. WATCH VIDEO



Another management tool

To help train hens to lay eggs in the nest and not on the floor, the Big Dutchman aviary is designed to enclose the hens when the birds are first transferred to the layer house from the pullet house. With the aviary closed, each eight-foot long section of the aviary becomes a colony for 150 hens. The hens can move freely though all three levels of the aviary where they learn to use the nest for laying eggs and learn the location of the feed, water and perches.

The hens are given access to the floor of the house when the aviary is opened at the bottom. Taylor and Wiley said that it is recommended that access to the floor be given to a flock when it reaches 70-80 percent egg production, or approximately six weeks after transfer from the pullet house. After this initial training period has ended, each night the doors to the aviary are closed after the birds have retired, and they are reopened the next morning approximately five hours after the lights come on.

Both Wiley and Taylor said that following this program really works to help prevent floor eggs and that the birds will return to their home "colony" on their own each night. They also said that the birds leave the aviary each morning to dust bathe and forage in the litter area.


Perches are located inside and outside of the system, resulting in a calm flock. WATCH VIDEO


Other cage-free housing

Midwest Poultry Services recently built a couple of two-story aviary houses on another of the company's Indiana farms. Krouse said that the company put these two new houses on the farm to replace some small houses that were built in 1971. The new cage-free houses each hold 36,500 hens per floor or 73,000 per house. He explained that the farm doesn't have a lot of acreage and that going to two stories allowed them to put more birds in a small footprint.

Midwest Poultry Services now has 500,000 cage-free layers to go along with 8 million layers in cages.


Quality litter is crucial for the flock to dust bathe and forage. WATCH VIDEO


Cage-free cost

There are a number of factors that make the cost of producing cage-free eggs higher than the cost of producing eggs in cages at Automated Egg Producers. To start, you have different breeds of hens. The brown egg layers used for cage-free egg production have good egg performance, but they are approximately 0.75 pounds heavier, so it takes more feed to raise and maintain them.

Aviary systems put more birds per cubic foot of building space than would be housed in a floor pen style house, but less than a cage house, so the capital cost per hen for cage-free housing is greater. Wiley said that there is just enough bird density in the cage-free houses so that supplemental heat has not been needed in the winter-time. 
Another cost factor for cage-free egg production at this location is the fate of downgrades and over-sized and under-sized eggs. Krouse said that they receive a premium for Grade A large cage-free eggs but that medium and jumbo size eggs only return the non-graded egg price. So with the higher feed, labor and housing costs for cage-free versus conventional cage production and the size issue, he said that the cage-free cost is significantly higher.