With the U.S. egg-laying industry potentially moving toward 100% cage-free production, new housing systems are being tested to find what methods make the most sense economically while providing for bird health and welfare. Recently, Iowa Cage Free LLP constructed a unique two-story, cage-free house for 540,000 hens.
Inside the outer skin of the building, walls and roof, are four housing enclosures or rooms. These rooms are arranged as two stacks of two which are placed side by side with air space in between the two stacks and over the top of the stacks, which serves as a plenum for air movement from outside the building to the inside of the rooms. Each room is 100 feet wide and 640 feet long and houses 135,000 hens. Each room has five zones. The exterior dimensions of the building are 220 feet by 640 feet.
The birds can move across the 100-foot width of the room, but each room is divided by fencing into five compartments that are 128 feet long.
Cody Lucero, business unit leader, Iowa Cage Free, said success in the layer house begins in the pullet house. Pullets need to be housed in systems that properly prepare them for the environment they will encounter in the layer house. Jump Start Rearing System by Vencomatic was used before the birds were transferred and adapted to the cage-free laying environment. The new layer house at the Goldfield, Iowa, farm has Vencomatic Bolegg Gallery aviaries.
Iowa Cage Free has installed equipment from several manufacturers in the company’s houses. The approach has allowed the company to evaluate each system and better understand how the birds interact with each system’s design. Lucero commented that each generation of equipment has improvements over older options and that performance of the hens continues to improve.
Many layer farms in Iowa were infected during the 2015 avian influenza outbreak. This Iowa Cage Free facility remained negative for avian influenza, but the devastating impact of the outbreak on many other egg farms led to adoption of even more stringent biosecurity measures.
The layer houses and egg packing and shipping building are surrounded by a perimeter fence. Employees park outside the fence at the shower facility. After showering and putting on farm-provided clothes, employees are bused inside the fence to their work area. A Danish entry system is used upon entry to the building, and employees change footwear before entering the egg-packing room or the layer house.
Entry to the layer houses from the farm offices also requires shower in and shower out, and this includes ultraviolet light treatment for items that can’t be washed.
Eggs are packed and shipped in reusable containers. Containers are heat treated before they are brought into the egg packing room at 170 degrees Fahrenheit for 24 hours. (Deven King)
All eggs produced on this farm are shipped to an offsite egg breaking and processing facility. Eggs are packed and shipped in reusable containers. These shipping materials are heat treated before they are brought into the egg-packing room. The receiving room is heated to 170 degrees Fahrenheit. The heat runs for six hours, but the materials are stored and held in the room for 24 hours.
During Egg Industry's farm visit in early June, the two units housing the oldest birds were toured. The oldest flock was 90 weeks old and looked very good for hens near the end of their lay cycle. The younger flock was 67 weeks old. Birds were calm and appeared to have performed well within the setting.
There are four staff members assigned to care for the birds in the new house -- one for each housing unit. They walk through the house to ensure bird health, functionality of the equipment and look for any other problems. Their consistent presence was obvious as birds did not get flustered when humans were in the house.
Lucero said floor eggs have not been a significant issue in the new house, and he credited proper rearing in the pullet house for a great deal of this success. Consistency of lay has been good and production remains above 90% even at 90 weeks.
Much of the manure is removed by belts in the aviary. The manure belts run every two to three days and manure is stored in a building on the farm, which has a holding capacity of approximately nine months' worth. Manure scrapers are also used on the floor to keep litter from getting too deep and to control dust. All manure is sold to a local farmer for use as fertilizer.
The house lighting program follows guidelines from the breeder. As in all housing systems employing nests, the nest area is kept darker than the rest of the house and feeding and watering areas are kept brighter, as is the area underneath the aviary.
Feeding schedules are adjusted throughout the flock based on daily egg mass, feed consumption and age of birds. Feed is independently distributed to each room four to six times per day.
The layer house temperatures for ventilation are set between 68 and 78 degrees Fahrenheit. The set temperature is based on flock age and feed consumption. Dust in the air of the house was minimal and air quality was good.
Building ventilation is automatically controlled with a PMSI Command III environmental control system from Poultry Management Systems Inc. The system keeps the house temperatures for ventilation between 68 and 78 degrees Fahrenheit. (Terrence O'Keefe)