The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Many people think a cage-free life is better for hens. It’s not that simple.

Cage-free, free-range chickens walk in a fenced pasture at an organic farm near Waukon, Iowa. (Charlie Neibergall/AP)

Indiana egg farmer John Brunnquell’s 1.3 million hens don’t live in cages. They also get to go outside, making his company, Egg Innovations, the nation’s largest free-range operation in the industry.

It wasn’t always so. Brunnquell, 54, grew up on a traditional chicken farm, and he says he “could argue all the benefits of cages.” That changed in the early 1990s, when his first glimpse of a cage-free barn convinced him that the freer system was better for the birds. He spent the next decade overhauling his own.

Along the way, he admits, things weren’t always better for his flocks. He had to figure out how to prevent a barn full of newly mobile chickens from pecking, or cannibalizing, each other. He went through seven perching designs to find one that kept the birds from crowding on the floor. He also needed to find ways to lower the rate of a very common injury to laying hens: damage to the keel bone, an extension of the sternum.

It was a steep learning curve on a pretty small scale. And it has made Brunnquell worry about the large-scale change now facing the U.S. egg industry, which is racing to meet the demand of hundreds of companies that have pledged to switch to cage-free eggs by 2025.

“The industry is going to adapt. It will go cage-free because the market says so,” said Brunnquell, who sits on several industry boards. “But we are going to be behind the curve for five to 10 years on how to manage those structures given the birds’ newfound freedom.”

“There are going to be some cases where management isn’t up to par,” he added, “and we have fear of undercover videos” showing hens that appear worse off despite their roomier quarters.

The cage-free revolution has been driven by consumers, many of whom think the change is better for chickens (though many also may believe eggs from uncaged hens are better quality). Animal protection groups argue it definitely is: Birds that are not confined to small wire cages can at least spread their wings and engage in natural behaviors like dust-bathing and perching, even if they never see the light of day.

But egg producers and researchers caution that the switch is not as simple as just opening those cage doors — and that mobility brings with it a new set of concerns for chickens’ welfare that most farmers have never confronted. A major 2015 study of three different hen-housing systems found that mortality was highest among birds in cage-free aviaries and that they also had more keel bone problems.

Animal advocacy groups contend that the industry-backed study was flawed because the cage-free operations examined were run by farmers inexperienced with such systems. Michael Toscano, an American research scientist who leads the Center for the Proper Housing: Poultry and Rabbits at the University of Bern, said egg farms in Europe — where cage-free operations are far more common — show that the problems can be mitigated. But “there’s definitely going to be a very steep learning curve,” he noted.

“Professionally, I would say that in terms of welfare, cage-free systems are the best for the birds,” Toscano said. “But it needs to be done well.”

One challenge is pecking, a behavior often described as “a virus.” Cages keep pecking contained, but it can rapidly spread throughout a flock of thousands of roaming hens, causing injuries and deaths to the birds, not to mention a loss of profits for producers. Reducing lighting can help stop it, as can distributing straw or offering pecking blocks. But farmers first need to know how to spot pecking and act quickly — a skill those who have worked with caged hens don’t necessarily have, Toscano said.

The big issue, however, is keel bone damage. Fractures and cracks are not fatal, and it is difficult to tell a chicken with damage from one without. But some research suggests that the injury reduces a hen’s egg production. And it’s almost certainly painful.

“If I were to impose a similar level of damage on your arm, you wouldn’t be working,” said Toscano, who called keel bone damage “the biggest problem for commercial laying hens in terms of animal welfare.”

And it’s a larger problem in cage-free operations. Studies on caged birds suggest that about one-quarter to one-third will have keel bone damage, but the injury rate is upward of half of cage-free chickens, Toscano said. That is probably because cage-free aviaries — which provide nesting boxes, litter and food and water on different tiers — contain lots of things for moving birds to smash into. Brunnquell, whose farms use a single-tier system, said most U.S. producers are likely to use aviaries because they can house more chickens.

Chickens “aren’t good fliers,” Toscano said. “They’re going to have collisions with other birds, support beams, drinking lines.”

There’s no clear fix for this yet. Farmers can help hens by providing ramps for them to get up and down tiers, but for that strategy to work they also need to raise chicks with ramps so they know how to use them, Toscano said. Solutions also might involve diets that include more calcium to strengthen chickens’ bones or genetic approaches to breed birds better suited to the environment, he said.

Keel bone damage is a major concern of U.S. egg producers who are staring into a cage-free future, said Sally Rockey, executive director of the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research, a nonprofit organization created and funded by the government. It recently teamed up with the Open Philanthropy Project, which gives money to causes deemed underfunded, to offer $1 million in grants for research on reducing keel bone fractures in cage-free laying hens.

The foundation’s main interest in the topic is chicken productivity, Rockey said. “Having an effective production system for animals includes making sure they’re healthy and treated in such a way that you get a good product,” she said.

For the Open Philanthropy Project, the motivation is chicken well-being. “We want to make sure that the systems that replace those cages are as good as possible and are as pro-welfare as possible,” said Lewis Bollard, the organization’s farm animal welfare program director. “This is a new challenge created by the increased behavioral opportunities.”

Toscano stressed that research is only one part, though. Training for farmers is crucial, he said, and he hopes the food service and retail companies that have made cage-free pledges offer it.

“It’s not just ripping out the cages and dropping in an aviary and everything goes according to plan,” he said. “My concern is that you’re going to get this massive change, which in 20 years is probably going to be where we want it to be. But in the interim period, you’re going to have a lot of difficulties.”

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