There is no question that colony cages were the focus of attention among prospective purchasers at the 2011 International Poultry Expo. This article is intended to outline the characteristics of available models for both retrofit and original installations.
The regulatory environment and uncertainty stemming from the 2008 California Proposition 2 has created interest in the colony system that has gained ground in Germany and other EU countries as an alternative to conventional cages. From discussion with personnel at all the major cage suppliers, it is evident that there is little interest in recaging or installing other than “enrichable” cages that can be converted to colony units at some stage in the future should this be either required or desired.
The first colony cage in the U.S. was a Big Dutchman unit purchased by J.S. West in California. A number of other installations have followed and orders are currently being filled for new enrichable units by a range of suppliers.
All models offered at the IPE have either received approval from the American Humane Association Certification Program or are currently undergoing evaluation. Prospective buyers are urged to review all dimensions and requirements to ensure that they are in compliance with the program. Tim Amlaw and his colleagues at AHA are to be commended for taking a courageous stand in approving the colony cage and issuing specifications for this system to ensure consistency and harmony with regard to design.
In comparison, the HSUS has declared that “a cage is a cage is a cage” although the colony system appears to conform to the requirements of California Proposition 2, depending on interpretation. The vague wording the legal definition and acceptability of alternative confinement systems will have to be settled by either a court ruling or modification of the Proposition either by ballot or enactment of superseding legislation.
Since the industry cannot stand still, decisions regarding expansion are required. The situation is also complicated by the perceived need to convert from conventional high-rise housing due to the alleged risks of salmonella infection associated with manure pits. The industry appears collectively willing to adopt the prudent selection of enrichable cages with the option of subsequent conversion to full enrichment.
Configuration of systems for either retrofits or new houses an important consideration. Taking into account the minimum 20 inch height of cages plus the manure belt and suspension it is impossible to exceed three tiers without installing mechanical systems to observe hens and to remove injured or dead birds in a fourth or higher tier.
Considerations with colony housing
In reviewing the AHA standards for colony housing, it is evident that any number of combinations of tiers can be used providing that a moveable gantry or a motorized inspection cart with an elevated platform is provided for units over three tiers in height. Many news units will comprise five tiers on the bottom stack, a metal catwalk at mid-level in the house and with five tiers on the upper stack. For retrofit installations, existing space and height limitations will dictate the number of tiers and rows. In the EU, 6 plus 6 installations are common for new houses.
Adequate ventilation and light are important considerations with high density colony housing. Special provision must be made to supply light to the bottom tiers. This requires either winched rows of CF lamps which can be raised or lowered or alternatively the installation of low wattage LED lighting in the top of cages in the bottom one or two tiers. Ventilation is an important determinant of flock production and it is generally preferable for the supplier to either specify or install a complete system compatible with cages. This may involve air tubes over the manure belts or special air ducts to provide fresh heat-tempered air to the flock. It is also necessary to ensure rapid drying of manure on the belts. With upwards of 200,000 hens in some houses the installation of power, water and temperature monitors and alarm systems is critical to successful operation.
A problem inherent to colony systems is the fact that a high proportion of eggs are laid in the nest area which results in accumulation of product over a short distance on the collection belts. Some manufacturers offer controls which advance the egg belt according to predetermined set-weight to minimize shell damage from contact and to optimize egg flow.
In reviewing the alternative systems on display at 2011 IPE, it is obvious that there is close correspondence with respect to dimensions and general design. Differences were noted in the position of perches, the location and layout of the nests and the required scratch area. Most systems can be supplied with either a chain in-trough or auger-in-trough feeder or a moving feed cart driven by cable.
Big Dutchman AVECH II
The name of this system is an acronym (Adaptive Versatile Enriched Colony Housing). Big Dutchman has attained considerable experience in the design, manufacture and installation of systems. The company is a leading supplier in Germany and has the highest proportion of colony systems among all the nations in the EU. The enrichable model for the U.S. market has provision for compartments, removable partitions, mounting points for installation of longitudinal perches, nests and the accessories required for full enrichment.
The Versa Colony System combines the extensive cage experience of the company in the U.S. and application of developments in the EU. The Versa is available in models from 3 to 12 tiers high with rows up to 520 ft. in length. The system offers optional compartment backs. Features of the system include the Ultralift XL egg collecting system, modular design and large horizontal doors on the cage front for ease of transfer and removal. The flexible floor has closer mesh spacing in the areas where birds congregate contributing to greater strength to obviate the problem of sagging.
Facco of Italy manufactured the Euro C3 model in 2000 and has progressively improved the design to the current Evo C3 and the Evo C3 Max. These models differ in length of the colony module by approximately 10 inches to accommodate an additional eight hens. Features of the Facco Evo C3 systems include a “soft balanced” footrest, longitudinal metal perches, claw filing on the front base plate and fenestrated plastic pads comprising the scratch area. The system is offered with the Facco Niagara egg collection and elevator system.
Tecno Poultry Equipment
Tecno Poultry Equipment of Italy supplies the Colony Plus 60 Module which incorporates many features common to other units. Perches are placed horizontally across the cage module. The scratch area comprises a patented plastic pad placed on one side of the cage. This is filled from the feeder trough alleviating the need for a separate auger tube. Nipple drinkers are placed centrally along the cage module. The nest areas for each colony are fitted with a patented nest mat.
This German company manufactures the Euro 2000 system. This module incorporates longitudinal perches, a litter-bath pad, and a single nest per module.
The Salmet colony housing system AGK 4000/735 is available in 3 to 8-tier configuration with a colony of 39 hens per compartment. The litter supply to the scratch pad areas is controlled by a timer and perches are different in shape and height to maximize stimulation and movement. The Salmet system can be supplied with either a moveable feed cart or a chain feeder.
The Farmer Automatic layer cage ECO meets AHA standards and can be supplied in configurations up to twelve tiers in height. The modules are fabricated from stainless and galvanized steel components and are supported by legs spaced at 12 inch intervals to provide adequate leveling and stability. Features of the ECO include a manure drying system and an egg saver wire that channels eggs gently on to the belts to prevent cracking. The nest area has curtains arranged as strips of plastic.
The bottom line
The interest in colony systems based on the EU pattern is evidenced by the current level of orders for enrichable cages compared to conventional systems. It remains to be seen whether the enrichable cages purchased over the next two to four years will in fact be extended to full enrichment.
To maintain production volume when retrofitting enrichable systems to attain full enrichment, producers will either have to sacrifice output or erect and equip almost double their existing enrichable housing capacity since density will decrease from 67 inches per hen to approximately 117 inches per hen.
It is considered necessary for the industry to establish a new product category to be defined, which will be midway in consumer acceptance and price between eggs derived from cage-free or conventional cages.
Eggs produced from colony systems will have to command a premium to justify the additional capital cost of enrichment and density compared with conventional cages. This situation did not occur in Germany where after conversion eggs from colony cages were assigned "cage status" and are stamped accordingly.
U.S. manufacturers of cages and their European counterparts are to be commended on their resourcefulness in adapting technology from conventional cage systems to suit the needs of an emerging market. Whether the more expensive colony systems actually improve welfare is a subject of debate, but the dimensions and designs have been approved by panels of experts. To avoid a totally unacceptable requirement that all egg-producing flocks be housed on floor systems the prospect of “enrichment” represent a good compromise and has the endorsement of scientists experienced in behavior and welfare.