Laying hen research critical to bird success in housing systems

Changes in laying hen housing systems will continue to require research for birds to maximize efficiency and meet producers' needs.

Ken Anderson said that, for the egg industry to understand how birds will react in new housing systems, they must always remember and understand where they have been. (Courtesy North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, Piedmont Research Station Staff)
Ken Anderson said that, for the egg industry to understand how birds will react in new housing systems, they must always remember and understand where they have been. (Courtesy North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, Piedmont Research Station Staff)

Changes in laying hen housing systems will continue to require research for birds to maximize efficiency and meet producers' needs.

Ken Anderson, professor at North Carolina State University in commercial layer and small flock management and director of the North Carolina Layer Performance and Management Program (NCLP & MT) recently sat down with Deven King, managing editor of Egg Industry magazine, to give insight into the NCLP & MT testing, of which Anderson has been the director for 30 of its 62 years.

King: Could you please give a brief overview of the NCLP & MT test?

Anderson: The number of poultry research facilities for egg-strain research has rapidly declined worldwide over the past decade. In 2005, the NCLP & MT became one of only three such layer tests in the world, and it has become the largest test remaining due to the closing of all but one European test. Since the mid-1980s, the North Carolina State University (NCSU) Program's primary purpose has been to provide the industry with unbiased strain evaluations in environments similar to the commercial industry with research on various industry management procedures superimposed upon each of the strains. The NCLP & MT reports are sent to all egg producers in North Carolina, and to an additional 354 producers and industry representatives throughout the U.S. and in 16 foreign countries.

The research associated with this program has contributed to animal welfare standards, shell egg regulations and new alternative molt procedures developed for the layer industry.

Egg production companies utilize the test results to compare and evaluate the strains and the different environmental factors that are imposed upon them.

Piedmont Poultry Station

The NCLP & MT testing takes place at the Piedmont Poultry Station at North Carolina State University. (Courtesy North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, Piedmont Research Station Staff)

KING: What is the biggest challenge with performing this research?

ANDERSON: We work with 18 different strains of laying hens; this makes it difficult to maintain everything the same way so that the factors we look at are comparable. The second thing is working with such a large experiment. The layer test over the last 9 years has utilized approximately 15,000 hens in five different production environments. We strive to keep the production systems and management as close to the industry as we can.

KING: Over the years, what have been your most interesting findings?

ANDERSON: Most of the interesting things are learned after the flocks are completed and the reports are with the egg industry. I realize that the NCLP & MT is a microcosm when related to the entire egg industry in the U.S., but what I hear from the producers is that they are seeing similar problems with the birds and their relationship to the production systems that we had. Some of the things we reported -- related to the strain by environment interactions -- were much higher in the report than that seen in the industry, but the trends are similar. It is imperative that we maintain a comparison of all the production systems. It is hard to see where you are going if you do not understand where you have been. There are people working against the egg industry to push it in a direction that ultimately is not sustainable, so maintaining a facility with the ability to compare all the systems is very important.

KING: Who decides what the research will focus on?

ANDERSON: The breeder companies that provide the laying strains provide input to the research that is conducted, then in tandem with the test we focus on issues that the egg industry is having. Some of these are the shift to cage-free production, and what this change is doing to egg quality, food safety, hen well-being, and health-related to internal parasites. Associated layer research comes from allied companies as well.

Ken Anderson

Ken Anderson has been the director of the NCLP & MT test for 30 of its 62 years. (Courtesy North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, Piedmont Research Station Staff)

KING: In the most recent test, what were the biggest challenges and accomplishments?

ANDERSON: The biggest challenge from the most recent test was associated with why the different strains responded to the various production systems so differently. The work we have done to evaluate welfare assessment of the hens in different production systems and food safety will be very important in the future

KING: How will cage-free requirements impact the way you do your research in the future?

ANDERSON: The cage-free movement in the U.S. and in Europe has taken hold in the egg industry and will continue. However, most eggs in the world are still produced by hens kept in cages. I also believe it is imperative and the hardest thing for the future will be staying current with the industry's production systems. We rely on state budgets for animal care, staff and for new structures. We have turned to the egg industry to create an aviary research facility that would mimic industry standards. For the new facilities, the egg industry has stepped up to provide the funds to build an aviary dedicated to research. Currently, the Aviary Building Endowment fund needs additional support from the egg industry to complete, for about an additional $700,000. Then, even when built, there is a need for staff to operate it properly. Aviaries require about three times the labor input per hen as does a cage system.

It is imperative that we get this facility in operation to address the issues of hen behavior and well-being, health, internal parasites and, most importantly, the food safety aspects related to cage-free systems.

Cage Free White Hen Research

Anderson said that, for his research, it is imperative to stay current with the industry’s production systems, but funding is an issue. (Courtesy North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, Piedmont Research Station Staff)

KING: Do you have plans to work with more cage-free birds?

ANDERSON: Yes, we want to work more in this area. The egg industry needs this type of research to help them improve the utilization of the cage-free systems and improve the performance of the hens. The future of the NCLP & MT is in doubt due to funding. Currently, the layer test is supported by the state of North Carolina, allied industries that provide funds for integrated research projects, the genetics companies and the egg industry. Egg producers like to see the data looking at the different production systems and how the hens performed in them. Herein lies the problem: The costs to run the test have gone up and the funds available from the state have gone down. The good news is the demand for layer research has increased and the allied industries have stepped up their funding as have the egg industry. However, genetics companies have decided the test does not help them and have decided to pull back from their support. Without the multi-part funding model it is impossible to run the test as it has been done in the past.

Page 1 of 362
Next Page