Egg producers: Less than half of US hens will be cage free in 2025

Learn why U.S. egg producers think less than half of U.S. hens will be housed cage free in 2025, despite future cage-free egg purchase pledges from most major retail and foodservice egg buyers.

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U.S. egg producers have been converting high-rise housing to cage free and have been able to house more hens in the same footprint. (Austin Alonzo)
U.S. egg producers have been converting high-rise housing to cage free and have been able to house more hens in the same footprint. (Austin Alonzo)

As part of the 2019 Egg Industry magazine Top Egg Company Survey, U.S. egg producers were asked what percentage of their customers have pledged to purchase only cage-free eggs or egg products by some future date.

Twenty-seven egg producers answered this question. On average, according to their responses, 54 percent of their customers have made future cage-free egg or egg product purchase pledges. The responses to this question ranged from 0 to 100 percent and the median response was 65 percent. If the responses from two producers who are already are 100 percent cage free are excluded, the average response of the other companies is 47 percent of customers have made future cage-free purchase pledges.

Producers were also asked what percentage of their customers have established interim benchmarks on their way to purchasing 100 percent of their eggs and egg products from cage-free hens by some future date. The average response was 20 percent, but 14 of the 27 responded that none of their customers had established interim goals for moving to 100 percent cage-free egg purchases. If the responses of egg producers that are already 100 percent cage free are excluded, then the average percentage of customers who have set interim cage-free egg purchase benchmarks falls to 12 percent.

Prediction: Less than half of hens cage free in 2025

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Cage-Free Shell Egg report released December 3, 2018, estimates the total U.S. cage-free layer flock (non-organic cage-free layers plus the certified organic cage-free layers) was 57.16 million. The December 2018 USDA Chicken & Egg report estimates the total U.S. table egg population at around 325 million hens, which puts the cage-free layer flock at 17.6 percent of the U.S. total flock. It is estimated that less than 1 percent of U.S. hens are housed in enriched cages.

Thirty-one egg producers provided their estimates of how they think hens in the U.S. will be housed in 2025. The average responses were 55 percent will be housed in conventional cages, 2 percent in enriched cages and 43 percent cage free. The responses for the percentage of hens housed cage free in the U.S. in 2025 ranged from a low of 20 percent to a high of 100 percent, with a median response of 40 percent.

2019 Survey Egg Producers

U.S. egg producers predict that 57 percent of the U.S. layer flock will still be housed in cages in 2025.

Egg producers have been asked how they thought U.S. hens would be housed in the Top Egg company Survey every year since the 2015 survey. The percentage of U.S. hens that were predicted be housed cage free in 2025 jumped from 14 in the 2015 survey to 41 percent in 2016. The prediction for cage-free hen housing has remained in the mid- to low 40 percent range over the past three surveys.

Egg Producer Predictions

U.S. egg producers consistently predicted over the past five Top Egg Company surveys that less than half of the layer flock will be housed cage free in 2025.

Major market disruption ahead?

If the average prediction from the 2019 Top Egg Company survey, 43 percent of all hens housed, for the U.S. cage-free layer flock is to be realized, then additional cage-free housing for 88 million hens would need to be built or converted in the next six years. To accomplish this would require a conversion or new construction of housing for 14.67 million cage free hens per year. As was noted in the January 2018 issue, the passage of Proposition 12 in California might absorb the production of as many as 32 million additional cage-free hens as soon as 2021.

In December 2016, the USDA estimated the total U.S. cage-free layer flock at 37.63 million head. Based on USDA estimates, the U.S. cage-free flock has grown by only 13.53 million head in the past two years, less than half the rate needed to meet the U.S. egg producers’ prediction of 43 percent of hens housed cage free in 2025.

Converting layer housing from cages to cage free

Cage-free layers are afforded more space per bird than are hens housed in conventional or enriched cages. However, survey respondents report that housing for 3.22 million head of cage-housed hens was converted to housing for 4.07 million head of cage-free hens in 2018. This is likely the result of conversion of pit houses to cage free, where the in-house manure storage area under the cages is utilized for cage-free housing in addition to the area of the house where the cages are placed.

Survey respondents report intentions to convert 4.57 million head of cage housing to cage-free housing for 5.37 million layers in 2019.

Cage Free Conversions

Conversion of conventional high-rise cage houses to cage-free systems allows for more birds to be housed in the existing building footprint because manure is stored in another building.

New housing construction

Survey respondents report adding new buildings to house 5.1 million hens in 2018. They also reported re-caging housing for 0.19 million hens in 2018.

In 2019, survey respondents report intentions to add new housing for 6.58 million cage-free hens. Construction of cage housing has not stopped in the U.S. According to survey respondents, new housing will be constructed in 2019 for 0.7 million hens in conventional cages and 0.82 million hens in enriched/enrichable cages.

New Building Additions

Survey respondents report new buildings constructed in 2018 and 2019 will be able to house 11.68 million hens.


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