Rose Acre’s different way of rearing cage-free pullets

At Rose Acre's Arizona site, the company is raising day-old baby chicks in the layer house and they stay there for the entire production cycle.

Rose Acre Farms has designed its own cage-free layer housing system, which includes young pullets growing in the aviary system before being let out. (Courtesy Rose Acre Farms)
Rose Acre Farms has designed its own cage-free layer housing system, which includes young pullets growing in the aviary system before being let out. (Courtesy Rose Acre Farms)

At about 20% cage free, Rose Acre Farms has designed its own cage-free layer housing system to increase efficiency and mimic some of what it was doing in the caged systems as it pertains to the effectiveness of labor, said Tony Wesner, chief operating officer of Rose Acre Farms, in the "Technology challenges of cage-free egg production and egg food safety" session during the Virtual Poultry Tech Summit hosted by WATT Global Media on October 22.

"We tried to look at where the shortfalls were in the present cage-free systems and do some changing that we thought would better fit our needs and still be able to get out the volumes of products we needed to take care of our customers and help feed people," he said.

Wesner said the company is still in the process of doing that and getting back to the numbers it had before (with cage-housed hens) as far as dollars spent to get the product on the shelf.

David Hurd, vice president of live production with Rose Acre Farms, said during the same session that the company is also working on its efficiency regarding scale. The cage-free housing that the company is doing now contains flocks with 185,000 birds.

“We are trying to get the efficiencies there, not only from the birds’ animal welfare standpoint – that the birds have access to feed, water, air and nesting – but that the people can carry out their animal welfare tasks throughout the day with such a large volume to be responsible for," Hurd said.

Primary changes in the Rose Acres designed system

Rose Acre Lone Cactus Egg Farm

Rose Acre Farm’s Lone Cactus Egg Farm, near Bouse, Arizona, is home to the new cage-free house design. (Courtesy Rose Acre Farms)

At the company's Arizona site, it is raising day-old chicks in the layer house, and they stay there for the entire production cycle.

"That gave us some opportunities to figure out how to best address where to start chicks properly and then allowed them to learn the behaviors in that house’s systems before the onset of lay. We wanted to have a system that the bird's behavior could navigate the different levels of an aviary system with minimal training, so we didn't have large groups of labor coming in at night to put birds off the floor into the system for roosting and it allowed the birds to train themselves a little more efficiently," Hurd said.

This method takes up more square footage than a pullet house would provide and ties up the layer house while the birds are still in the pullet stage, not producing eggs. However, Hurd said it still works out economically.

"This is a different way of looking at it and it was kind of a phased-in idea that, if it wasn't economically feasible to carry out, we could build an off-site cage-free pullet farm and transfer birds traditionally, but we have liked our results and the way the birds have reacted in the system. Our livability numbers are greatly improved from some of our other areas," he said.

The company is investigating to see if the stress of moving birds is adding to issues in other areas that limit bird success in lay and limit egg production.

Wesner said minimal labor crews are needed when birds are not being moved in out of different facilities.

Cage Free Pullet Training

Minimal labor crews are needed when birds don't need to be moved in out of different facilities. (Terrence O’Keefe)

Diseases may become an issue because the birds have not been completely vaccinated or developed immunity for diseases before they are introduced to a farm with adult birds.

Wesner explained that some may say the disease pressure and illness will someday work against the operation. However, the company has not had health problems in the multiple cycles it has used the new system. Although this method ties up the layer house for the initial 20 weeks before lay, Wesner feels the positive livability and production the company is seeing outweighs the cost of using the more expensive house for raising the pullets. He believes the method could be utilized in multiple Rose Acre locations. The company is the second largest egg producer in the U.S., according to Egg Industry’s 2020 Top Company Survey with an estimated 26.6 million hens housed; approximately 5 million of these are housed cage free.

Biosecurity practices have been put in place to avoid the risk of disease; everyone is showering in, wearing appropriate clothing and there is space between buildings, Hurd said.

"We definitely have top-notch staff that's on top of serology, posting birds and watching carefully to make sure we are not having any of those (health) issues, and as mentioned we are not seeing anything yet," Hurd said.

The Rose Acre aviary system includes a lot more solid ramps of a certain inclination and width that promotes activity to go up and down. It also includes water lines that can be lowered. The floor system is level with the bottom level of the aviary, where there is access to feed and water.

"We have the ability to feed and water not only the shier birds that migrate to the lower levels but also the more aggressive ones that get up into the system and investigate more," Hurd said.

The new house uses LED lighting. These lights are dimmable, whether it be stationary or rope lighting, and some of it is in the full spectrum range.

"We are experimenting, specifically at this location, when you are letting the younger birds out how we can wake the birds up a little more efficiently, get them to roost a little more efficiently, and get them up and eating. As we have found out, it is a little bit different depending on the breed and age of the bird," Hurd said.

Dealing with aggression

Regarding managing aggression, the facility manages lighting, has curtained nest box areas and offers the birds enough space within the system to get away from aggressive pen mates. This is believed to contribute to the better livability rates the operation has seen. Hurd noted that this system has housed multiple varieties of white and brown laying hens.

"We are doing the day-of-age Nova-Tech beak treatment at the hatchery and we are not coming back and doing anything afterward. Our feather pecking and aggression is not an issue because of the beak treatment," Hurd said.

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