The future of laying hen housing in the U.S. was the No. 1 topic at the Midwest Poultry Federation’s annual convention and trade show in St. Paul, Minnesota. The final report from the Coalition for a Sustainable Egg Supply’s three-year-long study comparing conventional cages, enriched “colony” cages and aviary housing for layers on a commercial farm was released at the show. Presentations on some of the research projects which addressed specific aspects of the coalition research were scattered across two of the educational sessions. In addition, other presenters over the course of the workshops touched on how consumer preferences, agitation spurred by activist groups, and upcoming start dates for layer housing standards in the states of Michigan, Ohio, Washington and Oregon may have on egg producers.

Dr. Joy Mench, professor and vice chair, animal science, University of California-Davis, made multiple presentations at the Midwest Poultry Convention regarding different aspects of the Coalition for a Sustainable Egg Supply research. After all of the scientific measurements have been made and analyzed, it is still up to the individual to subjectively weigh the importance to them of the various aspects of welfare and sustainability. There is no definitive answer as to which housing system is best for society as a whole. For instance, how does one weigh the increased mortality rate, higher costs and larger ammonia emissions experienced in the cage-free birds versus not letting the birds fly or properly dust bathe in either of the cage alternatives? Then to complicate the choices a little further, Mench stressed that this research was just a snapshot in time and that perhaps each system could be improved to eliminate some of the negatives and accentuate strong points.

Chad Gregory, president, United Egg Producers, discussed the implementation of California’s Proposition 2 and its associated regulations on the egg market and layer housing. Proposition 2 hasn’t created a “cage-free California.” Most eggs sold in California are still coming from hens in conventional or enrichable cages; for the most part there are just fewer birds in the same cages as before. Gregory said that egg producers are showing a lot of interest in what he called “combi-cages” which can be used as cages or opened up and used as an aviary. He said that the flexibility to respond to changes in the marketplace may be what producers need. I found this part of Gregory’s presentation at the Simmering Issues Forum striking, given the United Egg Producers’ support for the Egg Bill which prescribed a transition from conventional to enriched cages in the U.S. I was left wondering if enriched cages will be bypassed and cage-free aviaries will become the only real alternative to conventional cage housing in the U.S.?

Whatever housing system U.S. egg producers choose to employ, whether cages or cage-free, Dr. Temple Grandin, professor, animal science, Colorado State University, said that transparency will be the key to gaining consumer acceptance. She told the audience at the Fellowship Breakfast that segments of animal agriculture have chosen to try and hide behind so-called “ag gag” laws to shield their operations from activist groups. The problem with this approach, she said, is that agriculture acts like it has something to hide and the only images consumers see are those provided by activists. She said that animal agriculture in general and farmers specifically need to always think about how their operation would look on the Internet or to a group of guests at a wedding. I couldn’t agree with her more. Agriculture needs to fix its problems, not hide them. If an accepted practice just can’t be made to look good, then maybe it is time to find an alternative. The mentality of "what the consumer doesn’t see won’t matter" just doesn’t work in a world where everyone is carrying a cell phone that can film both still and video images.

Egg producers have to ask themselves if they want to take an active role in shaping the future of hen housing in the U.S. or do they just want to lay low and provide whatever the market dictates after the dust settles. Change is coming. Activist groups are going to spin their side of the story, but will egg producers join in the discussion?