Animal welfare experts at the University of California, Davis are researching ways to increase the safety of cage-free housing for hens. While the lack of a cage provides more space for hens, it also comes with an added risk for injuries such as broken bones. Producers are finding that many hens are developing breast or keel-bone fractures from miscalculating the distance between perches or colliding with other birds and other elements of their environment.
Researchers at UC Davis will be collaborating with personnel from Iowa State University, the University of Bristol in England and the University of Bern in Switzerland to evaluate the viability of rearing systems for chicks that can potentially reduce the number of injuries. The project funded by a grant from the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research will determine whether an active upbringing can facilitate the development of stronger bones, along with improved cognitive and navigational abilities.
Cage-free housing typically allows hens to roam free in a large vertical enclosed space, providing the opportunity for injury from moving around to perches and nesting areas. As many farmers raise chicks in flat enclosed spaces for the first 16 weeks, it may be detrimental to the bird when it becomes an adult and is moved into a new environment it is unfamiliar with. The team of researchers will be testing whether chicks raised in a multi-tiered and more complex environment can develop stronger bones and better navigation skills.
Keel-bone fractures are not entirely uncommon occurrences for laying hens, however, the number of reports has risen as more farmers move to cage-free systems. The increase in fractures is a concern for farmers as there is evidence suggesting these types of injuries can have a negative impact on egg quality.
An increasing demand from consumers for cage-free eggs has caused a significant shift in production in recent years. Close to 16 percent of all hens in the U.S. were involved in cage-free production in 2017. In order to meet market demand, close to 75 percent of all laying hens will need to be cage-free by 2026, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.