German egg farm transitions with the shell egg market

Learn about how legisaltion and activist activity have changed how eggs are produced in Germany.

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Free-range layers are provided at least 4 square meters of outdoor space per bird in Germany. | Terrence O’Keefe
Free-range layers are provided at least 4 square meters of outdoor space per bird in Germany. | Terrence O’Keefe

The egg market has undergone dramatic change in Germany over the last decade, and this is particularly true for the eastern part of the country. Egg production was controlled by the state in the German Democratic Republic (East Germany). East Germany was divided into nine regions, with each region having about 1 million hens in cages, according to Norbert Brechters, managing director, Deutsche Marken-Ei, member of the Salemt Group. The layers in each region were placed on multiple farms, which were located around a central caged pullet-rearing farm.

After German reunification in 1990, the government-owned farms were privatized, and the owners of Salmet purchased the layer and pullet farms in the German state of Thuringia. The houses were solidly built, but the equipment on the farms needed to be updated. All of the cages were replaced on the three hen farms located in Hessen, Bavaria and Erfurt, and at the pullet houses in Dillstädt.

Brechters said that one aspect of this 1 million hen and 450,000 pullet operation that was well thought out was spacing between the three layer complexes and the pullet farm, which provides a measure of biosecurity.

Hen housing legislation

A European Council Directive passed in 1999 banned conventional cages for housing laying hens effective January 1, 2012, but it also allowed for member states to impose the ban at an earlier date, and they could enact stricter standards for hen housing within their own borders. It took nine years for the EU to set standards for what would be considered acceptable housing for hens. Included among the acceptable forms of housing for hens in the EU was the enriched cage.

The German Bundestag took advantage of the option to enforce the cage ban at an earlier date, three years sooner, and to set a higher standard for hen housing — Kleingruppenhaltungen (enriched colony cages) for Germany versus the smaller enriched cage for the rest of the EU.

Enriched cages not enough for activists

The German ban on conventional cages went into effect on January 1, 2009, but that wasn’t the end of the changes for German egg producers. Some activist groups were still not happy with enriched colony cages for housing layers because they saw these as a big cage with a few enrichments. Activist groups put enough pressure on leading German food retailers to cause them to announce in 2010 that they wouldn’t buy eggs from hens housed in cages of any kind. This move forced some egg producers who had already invested to replace their conventional cages with enriched colony cages to switch again to “barn systems” (cage-free systems in a house). Yet another regulation will take affect in 2022 when enriched colony cages will be banned and all hens in Germany will be housed cage free.

Converting to cage-free

As retailers shifted exclusively to cage-free eggs, Deutsche Marken-Ei egg farms converted, along with much of the rest of the German egg industry, to cage-free production. The cage-free systems were installed in the same single-story barns that had housed conventional and enriched colony cages in the past.

Salmet high rise aviary

Single-story cage houses have been converted to cage-free, and the hens utilize all the perches, including ones near the ceiling. | Terrence O’Keefe

Brechters said that the most important part of the transition to cage-free is to switch the pullet housing first. He said that you must choose a housing system for the pullets that prepares them for the layer house. You can’t raise pullets on the floor or in a cage and expect them to know how to move around in an aviary in the layer house. The pullet farm utilizes Pedigrow 1 systems for birds raised on the floor and the Pedigrow 2 pullet system for birds going into aviary or combi systems.

10-day-old pullets perching

Pullets will perch at a very young age and need to be encouraged to move up into the system. | Terrence O’Keefe

5-week-old white layer pullets perching

These 5-week-old pullets have learned to move throughout the systems in the pullet house, which prepares them for life in an aviary system in the layer house. | Terrence O’Keefe

Because of market demand, the company now raises over 300,000 hens in free-range systems (cage-free with outdoor access). These houses have porches or “winter gardens,” but there are also doors to allow the hens out into pasture with some shade trees and range shelters. The pasture must provide at least 4 square meters per bird for free-range hens in Germany.

Brechters said that they are paid 2 to 3 euro cents (US$0.023-0.035) more for eggs from free-range hens than from cage-free hens. The company does not sell its eggs directly to retailers; instead, it sells to companies that aggregate and pack eggs from several producers and then in turn sell to the retailers.

Managing cage-free birds

Brechters said that it is more work to get set up and get the flock started in a cage-free layer house than in cages. But, he said if you do the rearing properly in the pullet house, getting the birds to move up throughout the system to eat and drink and go into the system each night, that it makes the transition to an aviary or combi system in the layer house much easier. He said a well-raised group of pullets may only require extra attention to get them off the floor the first few nights after they are moved into the layer house. Getting hens used to moving into the system at night and moving freely throughout the system is critical for limiting the number of eggs laid outside the nest as floor or system eggs.

German egg producers voluntarily agreed to stop housing beak-trimmed pullets on August 1, 2016, and beak-trimmed layers on January 1, 2017. Pecking stones are utilized in the pullet houses as an enrichment that can also naturally wear down the beak somewhat.

Peck stone with intact beak pullets

Pecking stones serve as an environmental enrichment for these pullets with intact beaks. | Terrence O’Keefe

On average, Brechters said that the company keeps its hens in production until 82 weeks of age, and they are never molted.

Learn more about the German egg industry:


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Check out a new collection of exclusive articles, blogs and infographics on Cage-free Eggs: Hen Welfare and Housing Challenges. Written by trusted WATT Global Media editors and industry experts, this report will equip egg producers and marketers with information to help them make critical business decisions. Available for purchase now" target="_blank">Available for purchase now.

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