Enriched colony housing was the major focus of producers at the 2010 Midwest Poultry Convention in St. Paul in March. Concern over opposition to conventional caged housing has stimulated an interest in this European alternative.

Germany and France with approximately 80 million layers have about 10% of their flocks in enriched colony cages with approximately 35% of 9 million hens in the Nordic countries. The successful passage of Proposition 2 in California in 2008 has increased awareness of European progress in housing.

The justification for the interest in the system is that adoption might possibly placate opponents of confined housing, despite the inherent efficiency and lower capital and operating costs associated with conventional batteries operated in accordance with UEP guidelines.

All the major equipment manufacturers displayed versions of enriched and enrichable cages based on either European designs or representing direct imports from Italy and Germany. In some cases the units which were displayed on the show floor represented prototypes. A number of the suppliers indicated that they had successfully installed units during 2009 and the current year and additional orders for 2010 are pending.

Viable alternatives?

It is reiterated that stalwart opponents of confined housing regard enriched cages as unacceptable, a position paralleling the decision of regulators in Germany. The question arises as to motivation to adopt alternatives to conventional cages.

It is possible that FMI and QSR customers may in fact accept enrichment as a viable alternative without having to mandate floor housing? It is obvious that organizations such as HSUS will continue to be opposed to confined housing based on their published principles and their opposition to intensive livestock production. The American Humane Association is currently evaluating the welfare opportunities presented by enriched cages but have not yet issued an endorsement.

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Despite the research conducted in Europe and the U.S. on small groups of hens in alternative cage systems there is no evidence that production can be enhanced applying enrichment. With optimal management, environmental control and nutrition, the leading commercial strains will attain their genetic potential with little prospect for improvement in livability, egg production or egg mass, given current stocking density, feeding, manure handling and water supply.

Is enriched enough?

Despite the evident interest in the concept of an enrichable cage system there are profound questions relating to future adoption in the U.S. It is evident that some producers anticipate gaining a competitive advantage by installing these systems. Others consider that this approach will preempt legislation banning conventional cages or satisfy regulators or certifying agencies.

There is obvious justification to consider a small-scale installation for a niche market or for in-company evaluation. The variables including capital and operating cost and production efficiency can be projected with a fair degree of certainty based on EU data.
The return on investment compared to conventional cages will depend on a premium in the marketplace but none of the suppliers of these systems are actually quoting firm figures but offering units on the basis of technical attributes.

Under the best possible scenario welfare advocates and consumers will accept the concept of enrichment and eggs derived from the systems will carry an additional margin. There is however a down side to every situation as evidenced by recent history in Germany where producers who invested in enriched systems have had their product excluded from major supermarket chains.

The reality in the U.S. is that for the intermediate and foreseeable future the vast majority of table eggs will continue to be produced in conventional cages. Facilities may be located in “accommodating” states with Animal Welfare Boards regulating housing and production practices for confined livestock.