The proposed laying hen alternative-housing research center at Michigan State University is inching closer to reality, but more money still needs to be raised by the layer industry, according to Dr. Darrin Karcher, poultry extension specialist at Michigan State.

Equipment vendors have committed to provide the housing systems, including the feeding and watering systems, but it is up to the layer industry to commit the funds for construction of the 33,000 square foot building. As of early June, the fund raising effort was around $750,000 short of the $2.75 million goal.

Proposed aviaries  

Karcher said that currently there is no facility in the U.S. that has conventional cages, aviary systems and enriched colonies. The aviaries proposed for the Michigan State facility will provide 144 square inches per hen in cage-free, stacked deck aviaries. The enriched colonies provide 116 square inches per bird and provide opportunities for birds to perform all natural behaviors. The facility will have four rooms set aside for battery cages, 12 for enriched colonies and four for 1,000 hen aviaries and four for 500 bird aviaries. The battery cage and enriched colony rooms will all house 500 birds each.

The facility will be used to measure layer performance in the three housing systems with emphasis on behavior and welfare, environmental stewardship, food safety, nutrition and health, and economics. “I am hoping what we are able to do with this facility is to look at the production data as we have in the past, and also bring in the aviary and environmental element as well. This will allow us to see the tradeoffs in production and in the environment,” said Karcher.

Research to benefit the industry  

Research grants have already been awarded for studies that will be conducted at the facility when it is completed, but the grants fund the cost of operating the facility, and not for constructing it. The Coalition for Sustainable Egg Supply has awarded a $6 million grant to Michigan State and the University of California-Davis to study the sustainability of various layer housing systems as well as looking at the trade-offs among food safety, worker safety, environmental impact, hen health and welfare and food affordability.

Karcher said that while this facility is designed for comparing three housing options of today, it will likely be updated down the road as housing system designs continue to evolve.

If one housing type becomes obsolete it would be replaced with another type of housing system. “Within 10 years you will probably gut the entire building so that you can continue to conduct meaningful research that will benefit the industry,” said Karcher.

Funding construction  

The proposal for constructing the facility will be presented to Michigan State’s board of trustees by the first of August and financial commitments to fund the construction will need to be in place by then, according to Karcher. He said that if the full $2.75 million is not committed then the project will be scaled back, but the hope is that additional commitments will be forthcoming and the project can proceed as planned.

Karcher said that if the board approves the project this September, birds should be placed in the building in the fall of 2012.