Enriched cages are seen as a way of balancing laying hen welfare with the needs of commercial egg production. However, poor management of the scratch pad can mean birds are unable to express some of the natural behaviors that furnished cages were designed to encourage.

Improving the scratch pad is now the focus of a research project being carried out by the French Agency for Food, Environmental and Occupational Health Safety (Anses), which is attempting to address the shortcomings of some current scratch pads, and so facilitate easier pad management.

“The common approach to satisfying scratching and pecking needs is to include a sheet of artificial turf with litter placed on top,” said Maryse Guinebretiere, project leader with Anses.

“However, in practice, egg producers are not always adding the necessary litter to the artificial turf mat, or replacing the mat when it becomes dirty. A dirty mat can result in dirty eggs, and so producers tend to simply remove it, meaning that bird welfare, and legal requirements, are compromised.”

Growing welfare issue?

The European Union ban on conventional cages, introduced to address laying hen welfare concerns, came into force in January 2012, and now more than half of Europe’s laying hens are kept in enriched, or furnished, cages.

In some Member States, this figure is as high as 70 percent, meaning that failing to properly manage the scratch pad could potentially be affecting a significant number of laying hens. This number could increase if the management failings identified in Europe are repeated as more countries adopt enriched cages for laying hens.

“There is a time and a monetary cost in topping up the mat with litter or replacing it altogether, which producers do not currently seem prepared to meet. Consequently, there is a need to find an alternative to artificial turf with litter that will not only allow birds to express their natural behavior, but also will last throughout the production cycle without causing dirty eggs,” Guinebretiere said.

Anses looked at various factors to establish how laying hens use the scratching pad and how this affects pad management.

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A simple pad on its own without added litter, it was found, does not appear to fully address welfare needs. While adding litter does not appear to influence layer health or laying rate, it does encourage birds to scratch, peck and dust bathe.

The type of litter, be it feed bran or feed, appeared to have little effect on hen response.

From these studies, it was concluded that producing a substitute that acted as mat and litter at the same time would be the best way forward. This would give birds the necessary stimulus to express their behavior, while at the same time removing the need for the stockman to add litter to the mat or periodically replace it.

To achieve this this, any mat needs to be made from a sufficiently durable, yet friable substance, that will last through to the end of the production cycle, at which point it can simply be discarded and replaced in the cage.

Various options have been considered, but in trials, some were destroyed very quickly by the hens. Among those to show promise, however, have been mats made from wood shavings and natural glue, a mineral-based substance, and an algae-based mat.

While the mats are only prototypes, some materials are looking to be particularly promising, and will be developed into commercially available products should they successfully complete the evaluation process, which includes filming the hens to monitor their response to the various mat prototypes.

The results of the study are expected in March or April 2016.