Housing for Laying Hens: A Guide

Big Numbers, Big Changes

To say the least, consumer eggs is currently one of the most booming production sectors of Canada’s agricultural industry. Whether for the table or the processing industry, the sector is growing by leaps and bounds. The sector has seen 11 straight years of increased sales, and last year, sales were up 6.6%. 

This situation encourages producers to develop their businesses and build new production units. But government and consumer pressure are drastically changing the landscape in which these new units will be built. 

Global trends in housing for laying hens show that significant changes have already been made, and that this is just the tip of the iceberg. For example, in Europe, conventional cages have been prohibited since 2011. For the most part, producers have switched to enriched cages (more space per hen, addition of nesting boxes and perches). In the United States, conventional cages are still permitted, except in California. However, we are seeing strong pressure in favour of enriched cages, and even more so for aviary or free-run systems. 

This phenomenon is gaining ground in both the U.S. and Canada, and will likely be irreversible. In fact, Egg Farmers of Canada and NFACC committed to no longer using small conventional cages by 2036

The pressure is two-fold. Not only are government policies driving new housing practices and protocols, there is a major push from the consumer sector. In the past few years, we've seen several processors and high-profile restaurant or food chains have decided to buy from suppliers that sell eggs from free-run farms.

resteraunts companies demanding free-run eggs, consumer pressure on the egg industry
As producers, we have no choice but to take a step back and consider all of the elements at play. As we know, Québec already decided to abolish conventional cages for all new projects back in January 2015. The growth prospects remain interesting for the sector, but we also have to be attuned to market needs.

Any producer planning a new project first needs to carefully consider the type of housing he will use.

Housing Options: Which One's Best? 

hen layers housing comparison aviary free-run, furnished

Aviary Housing 

Aviaries are multi-tiered systems comprised of a ground floor and one or more perforated elevated platforms from which manure cannot fall onto the animals below.

In aviary housing, a great deal of effort must be made when raising pullets to adapt them to their future laying house and to reduce the risk of floor eggs. However, a major advantage of multi-tiered systems is the ability to house more free-run hens in the same size laying house. 

Free-run Housing 

Free-run systems are operated indoors; the farmer enters the enclosure. These systems feature nesting boxes and bedding for the birds and sometimes perforated platforms. Elevated perches may or may not be included.

In free-run housing, the main challenge is managing floor eggs. Compared to aviary housing, there is less work involved in preparing the pullet, since the work is done when the bird enters the laying house, e.g., precise floor egg collection schedule, timing of egg belts, different cover configurations to attract birds to nesting boxes.

Furnished [aka Enriched] Housing 

Furnished housing features all of the equipment found in conventional housing, in addition to a variety of enrichments, which allow the hens to express more natural behaviours. Enrichments include perches, nesting boxes, and extra height and space. However, bedding is optional. Furnished housing is also called enriched housing.