The total number of table egg laying hens housed in the U.S. declined in 2020 according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The December 22, 2020, USDA Chicken and Eggs report estimated that the U.S. had 325.2 million table egg laying hens housed on December 1, 2020. This represents a 4.6% decrease from the same date in 2019.
The December 7, 2020, USDA Cage-Free Shell Egg Report estimates that on December 1, 2020, the total U.S. cage-free layer flock had 80.1 million hens, a 9.3 million-head increase from the same date in 2019. Nearly one-quarter, 24.6%, of the U.S. layer flock was estimated to be housed cage free on December 1. The rate of conversion of the U.S. layer flock to cage-free housing slowed in 2020: 9.3 million head of cage-free hens were added from December 1, 2019, to December 1, 2020, while 13.9 million head of cage-free hens were added from December 1, 2018 to December 1, 2019.
More cage-housed hens than cage free in 2025
Egg producers were asked how they thought the entire U.S. layer flock would be housed in 2025. The simple average response of the 36 companies that provided a prediction is 54.6% in conventional cages, 44.7% cage free and 0.7% in enriched cages. Despite cage-free housing legislation passage in several states, egg producers’ predictions for how hens will be housed in the U.S. in 2025 have changed very little since 2018. For the U.S. cage-free layer flock to reach 44.7% of the total by the end of 2025, housing for more than 13 million hens per year would need to be converted to cage free each year for the next five years.
How will your hens be housed in 2030?
Egg producers were asked how they predicted their own hens would be housed in 2030. The 37 companies that provided an estimate house 203 million hens; 53.1 million (26.2%) of these are either housed cage free or free range now. The weighted average prediction of the egg producers is that their hens will be housed 60.3% cage free, 33.2% in cages and 6.5% free range. If these predictions are met, then these producers will be busy converting approximately one-third of their housing from cages to cage free and free range in the next decade.
Twelve of the companies answering this question predict their hens will be 100% cage free or free range in 2030, but four companies predict they will still have 70% or more of their birds housed in cages by 2030.
What will drive cage-free conversions?
Egg producers were asked to choose the answer they believed to best complete this statement: “I think that the biggest driver for cage-free housing in my company will ultimately be ... .” Nearly two-thirds of respondents believe legislation in the states where their customers are located will be the primary driver for cage-free housing. The next most popular answer was consumer preference for cage-free eggs. Purchase pledges by major egg purchasers in states without cage-free housing legislation was predicted to be the least important factor for driving cage-free housing in their operation.
Continuing impact of COVID-19
Egg producers were asked which COVID-19 pandemic responses in their egg production facilities they expect to continue after the pandemic ends. Based on the responses, it appears that “normal operating procedures” have changed for good. More than 60% of respondents expect heightened sanitation of facilities, increased retail sale of shell eggs, and increased use of automation to continue. Nearly half of respondents expect use of face masks and other personal protective equipment and changes to sick leave policies to continue. Approximately one-third of respondents expect changes to packing facility air flow and filtering and increased use of remote monitoring of layer houses to continue.
New construction and cage-free conversions
Top Egg Company survey respondents report building new housing for 10.85 million hens in 2020. Housing for 6.5 million head of hens is in facilities that are cage free or convertible housing, with or without outdoor access. They also reported plans for building space for 9.22 million hens in 2021, 7.84 million of which will be in cage-free or convertible housing.
In 2020, survey respondents report converting housing for 3.93 million cage-housed hens to cage-free housing for 5.39 million hens. Survey respondents report plans for converting housing for 4.15 million cage-housed hens to housing for 5.11 million cage-free hens in 2021.