On my recent visit to the Midwest Poultry Federation Convention in St. Paul, Minnesota, I had the opportunity to visit with 12 suppliers of housing systems for laying hens. After hearing about the various types of systems being offered and how they operate, I think there are three questions that U.S. egg producers should ask themselves before they decide which system to choose:

1.      Do you or will you have a market for additional cage-free eggs?

You don’t have to be convinced that the entire U.S. market is going cage-free to invest in additional cage-free housing capacity. You just have to be comfortable that you will be able to sell the volume you add at cage-free prices.

2.      What kind of performance can you expect from the system?

This might seem like an obvious question, but in many cases, there isn’t an easy answer. A number of cage-free systems being offered haven’t been used commercially yet or haven’t been used in the housing layouts that are being discussed here in the U.S. For aviaries and so-called convertible or combi systems, varying the aisle width, number of birds housed in a group between dividers, increasing the length of the house, and or adding additional floors could all potentially affect cases of eggs packed. All these factors need to be considered when comparing expected system bird performances. The goal should be cases of eggs packed, not number of hens per cubic foot of house.

3.      What will the optics for your system and layout be?

The U.S. market for cage-free eggs is growing because of consumer and activist group perception of cage housing. Do you think consumers will accept as “cage-free” systems that look like a cage without a front door?