Are cage-free layers healthier?

“We didn’t put birds in cages for no reason,” said Kelli Jones, DVM at the 2017 Live Production, Welfare and Biosecurity Convention.

“We didn’t put birds in cages for no reason,” said Kelli Jones, DVM, at the 2017 Live Production, Welfare and Biosecurity Convention, on September 19 in Nashville, Tennessee. Jones discussed the cost of cage-free eggs for producers and consumers from not only a production standpoint but also from a financial stance.

Customer perception is the driving force behind cage-free eggs, however there may be some lack of understanding concrerning what this really means, she explained.

“The reason we put birds in cages is because as producers we wanted clean and unbroken eggs,” Jones said. Producers also wanted to ensure the best animal welfare practices to their birds.

“The level of egg production and clean eggs suffers when you take birds out of cages,” said Jones.

Jones referenced statistics that said as of May 2017, organic and cage-free shell eggs made up 13.2 percent of the table egg layer flocks -- that’s 41.2 million hens. Of those, 8.5 percent or 26.6 million are simply cage-free. “This is a very large number,” Jones said.

From a financial standpoint, not only do producers have to worry about the added health risk to their flock and the equipment needed, but she also added that some consumers may not be willing to pay the additional price for cage-free products. “There are still all the caged-eggs to compete with, when things get tough at home people are going to go toward the cheaper cage eggs,” she said. Not to mention cage-free production requires more employees and more feed, she added. 

Animal welfare and bird health

“There are welfare concerns. There are publications after publications identifying these concerns regarding the cage-free process,” said Jones. Consumers may not understand that a cage-free housing system is potentially more harmful to the birds. “In cages, we know exactly what the birds are eating and how much,” Jones said. If a bird goes off feed because it’s ill, producers can assess the situation further.

Producers also know that they are protected from environmental factors such as the weather. The birds can also be better managed from a biosecurity standpoint, she insisted. “Hopefully we know that the predators also can’t get to them,” she added.

The birds are not the only ones at potential risk in a cage-free system. “Litter management is a problem not only for the birds but also poses a lot of air quality environment concerns,” said Jones. A cage-free system without conveyers to remove bird waste causes an increase in ammonia. “Is society aware of this?, I don’t think so,” Jones said.

Parasites, coccidiosis, and intestinal worms are all a higher risk when the birds have access to fecal matter. “Mortality is higher in every poultry housing system than it is in a cage system,” Jones said.

It’s not clear-cut, and there isn’t anyone to say who is right or wrong, she explained. We do know physically there is more damages such as heel fractures and bodily harm in a cage-free system because birds can bounce off equipment and jump.

Jones referenced a study that concluded open aviary systems were more likely to produce eggs contaminated with Salmonella and higher levels of Campylobacter, which brings food safety concerns to the attention of producers.

Moving ahead

Jones feels its important producers educate themselves before switching systems. Certain diseases and internal parasites could be more prevalent and even present themselves in forms the layer industry hasn’t been exposed to in the past, she added.  

Some of the things the layer industry has encountered have been taken care of by vaccines, that’s going to be harder to manage in a cage-free system she insisted. For example, “Reovirus has become harder to fight and the commercial industry can’t produce a vaccine to keep up with it,” Jones said.

“Respiratory infections and stomach bacterial infections are also a higher concern, she noted. With these concerns comes the added fear that health outbreaks will take place that the U.S. has never seen before.

Parasites may lead to egg loss in production as well.

Jones suggest that management practices are going to be more important than ever. “Who’s to say what’s right and wrong,” Jones said. The industry will have to make that decision but with these concerns in mind. “Does the public know what’s healthier?” she asked. Perception is key, she noted.

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