It appears Oregon and Washington will be the first U.S. states to ban conventional cages for housing hens, even though many animal rights groups thought implementation of Proposition 2 would make California first.
The regulations that outline compliance with Proposition 2’s language allow for hens to be kept in conventional cages, but they have to be given substantially more space per bird. It is still possible that California’s housing standards will be challenged in court and subsequently changed; if not, Oregon and Washington may gain the “distinction” of being the first states without conventional cages.
The chicks can move freely inside the system from Day 1. WATCH VIDEO | All photos courtesy Big Dutchman
Oregon and Washington ballot initiatives
Greg Satrum, co-owner, Willamette Egg Farm, said that in advance of a state ballot initiative which would mandate how laying hens were housed in Oregon, his farm hosted numerous groups through his farm’s layer houses so key people could see what hens housed in conventional cages, cage-free aviaries, cage-free on the floor and enriched cages looked like.
“Every (housing) system has advantages and disadvantages," Satrum said. "Visually, the cage-free houses (on the floor and aviaries) have the most open, free feel about them, but when ventilation levels are low in cool weather the air quality in those houses can get marginal.”
The reaction of people who toured the facilities varied, according to Satrum.
“Typically, folks who came through didn’t like the traditional floor system as much, just because it is smelly and dusty,” he said. “They thought the aviary was pretty pleasant, but still dusty. The first thing people would comment on in the conventional houses was how good the air quality was.”
Willamette Egg Farm’s conventional houses have belts to remove the manure, and a portion of one house had enriched colony cages with hens housed at 116 square inches per bird.
“The people who tend towards the animal advocate side said they like the aviaries, understanding that there are some issues with dust," Satrum said. "Most folks really liked the look of that enriched colony (cage) given the air quality and more space for the birds, and then some people said what is wrong with the conventional cage? It is really a values-driven decision. But most people we toured were somewhere between enriched colony and aviary.”
Because of avian influenza concerns, Satrum said Willamette Egg Farm will no longer host any tour groups until the outbreak is over.
Enriched cages for laying hens in Oregon and Washington
As part of the now-expired laying hen welfare agreement between the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and the United Egg producers, the HSUS suspended its efforts pushing for state ballot initiatives and committed its efforts to securing passage of the national hen welfare legislation known as the Egg Bill. When ballot initiative efforts were abandoned in Oregon and Washington, the legislatures in both states had already passed bills through both houses with standards similar to the Egg Bill. Oregon Senate Bill 805 and Washington Senate Bill 5487 were signed by the governors of the respective states in 2011. The laws set requirements for housing laying hens that produce eggs and egg products offered for sale in those states. Timetables for the transition of hens out of conventional cages into either enriched cages at 116 square inches per bird or cage free are set in a manner similar to the Egg Bill. Any new hen housing construction has to meet American Humane Association guidelines for either enriched cages or cage free. Producers can continue to use existing facilities until 2026.
After attempts were made in two Congresses to pass the Egg Bill, efforts to pass the proposed legislation were abandoned by the United Egg Producers and the HSUS. This leaves Oregon and Washington to move forward with Egg Bill-like regulations while it appears that hen housing in most of the rest of the country will be determined by market forces, at least for now.
Cage-free laying hens in Oregon
Satrum said Willamette Egg Farm got back into cage-free egg production around 2002, because of interest from customers.
“We were a little late to the game, particularly with our organic production,” he said. “We dragged our feet a little bit because we wanted to be sure it was a real trend.”
He said it had been almost 50 years since the farm switched from cage free to cages for housing its hens. Its first new-era cage-free house was just an old house that they pulled the cages out of and put in nest boxes and slat flooring, in a setup similar to a broiler breeder house. It was so interesting seeing birds out of the cage, he said, that when they put the first flock of chicks on the floor, they set up lawn chairs in the pullet house and watched the chicks run around.
Today, Willamette Egg Farm produces around 8 percent of its eggs cage free. Satrum said Oregon probably has a slightly higher percentage of cage-free egg sales overall.
The future of cage-free sales in Oregon may depend on the price differential between cage-free and cage-produced eggs at retail, according to Satrum.
“Whenever conventional eggs get close to cage-free eggs in price, we see cage-free egg sales take off," he said. "Then, when the conventional egg price comes down, cage-free sales tend to drop off. A good percentage of consumers are always going to be price sensitive. Cage-free eggs tend to be fairly stable in price; the commodity conventional egg prices jump around.”
In the future, cage-free eggs will be competing against eggs from hens in enriched cages in the Pacific Northwest.
There are an estimated 3.83 and 6.72 million people in Oregon and Washington, respectively, in 2015. There were 2.305 and 6.994 million layers on hand in Oregon and Washington, respectively, in March 2015. Willamette Egg Farm, which has hens in Oregon and Washington, reported 2.3 million hens housed in the 2015 Top Egg Company Survey. Oregon is a slight egg deficit state, while Washington produces just enough eggs to meet its needs.
Competitive cage-free egg production
Like many egg producers, Willamette Egg Farm got into cage-free egg production because customers were asking for it. Now, as cage-free demand has grown, some egg producers have large inline cage-free farms either on the drawing board or under construction.
“Cage free will get more competitive,” Satrum said. “You have to become a better manager in cage free. You really have to be on your game to get peak performance.”
The aviary systems have been an improvement over the floor systems, both for raising pullets and housing the layers, according to Satrum.
“The aviary brooder system has really simplified how we start chicks. It was a lot more difficult when we started them on the floor,” he said.
He reports that Willamette Egg Farm has seen steady improvement in livability and persistence of lay in aviary systems.
“We have become better managers and the (breeds) are better. Once you get a system down, it can be quite workable, but it changes even if you just change breeds,” he said. Willamette Egg Farm has individuals who specialize in caring for and managing the cage-free flocks.
Raising pullets for aviary life
Aviary systems allow cage-free pullets and laying hens to take advantage of all of the three-dimensional space in a house and allow for more birds to be housed per square foot of floor space when compared with floor systems. It is important to train the pullets to utilize the three-dimensional space in the aviary of the pullet house so they can do this in the laying house without injuring themselves.
Willamette keeps the pullets closed in the aviary system for the first four weeks, but some producers let the birds out as early as two weeks of age. The pullets roam the house freely during the day. Then, each evening when the lights go down, the pullets go into the aviary to perch on their own.
A similar procedure is used after the pullets are moved to the aviary in the laying house. The birds are kept closed in the aviary for a few weeks and then the aviary is opened in the morning. Sunset is simulated with the lighting to signal to the hens to go back in the aviary, but then the system closes automatically. Satrum said once the layers are let out in the morning, workers have to put the stragglers back in in the aviary in the evening for the first 3-5 nights after they are let out. This helps to prevent hens from staying out and learning to lay eggs on the floor.
Initially, with the floor system, the farm’s cage-free laying hen mortality was disappointing, according to Satrum. “Five years ago, we were probably running twice the mortality in cage free as in cages, but now it runs just a little bit higher in cage free and most of this is at the end of the flock cycle,” he said.
Satrum credited improved genetics, the aviary system and the farm’s lighting program with helping to improve the cage-free hens’ livability.
“One of our goals in lighting is to avoid feather pecking,” he said.
Feather pecking can ultimately lead to skin abrasions which can, at times, trigger cannibalism. He said the aviary offers places for the hens to hide that aren’t found in floor systems.
“The birds are just less nervous and flighty in the aviary than in the floor system,” Satrum said.