Last time I gave you my conclusion, today I’ll talk about housing systems.
But before we get to that, let’s settle the egg shell color debate: brown versus white. This has nothing to do with the inside of the egg; it is completely dependent on the kind of hen who laid the egg. Different breeds lay different colored eggs, but the inside is exactly the same. Brown eggs come from red-brown feathered breeds that tend to be larger than other breeds and require more food, which could explain why they’re more expensive. The inside of the egg is only affected by what the hen eats. (Laying hens require a high-protein diet but will eat just about anything they can find or scratch from the ground: bugs, grass, seeds, fruit, etc. Commercially-produced chickens generally eat a grain-based diet.)
Housing (sources for label definitions: Egg Nutrition Center)
There are two primary differences between how hens are raised: they’re either in a house their whole lives, or they’re outside for all or some of their lives. You can imagine why a farmer (and a consumer) would want to put chickens in a house – it makes it easier to control what the chickens eat and collect the eggs, and it protects the birds from predators, parasites and disease. On the flip side, it may restrict some or all of the birds’ natural tendencies, like the ability to spread their wings, forage, dust-bathe, nest and perch. Within the house, birds can either be in a cage or not. Cages allow easy collection of eggs and help keep the house clean and the birds healthy – one of the major obstacles in raising chickens is managing the manure. Cages allow a conveyer-belt system to continually remove the manure. Obviously, the size of the cage can greatly restrict birds’ natural behaviors, and many cages don’t allow birds to turn around. That being said, caged chickens have the lowest mortality rate of any of the systems. Cage-free systems have increased hen-to-hen aggression and incidence of broken bones that both contribute to higher mortality rates. While cage-free systems definitely allow the birds to perform many more natural behaviors, they are inherently dirtier because manure cannot be removed as well or as often.
Conventional eggs (those that don’t have a label saying anything about the housing of the chickens) come from hens that have spent their whole lives inside a cage inside a house. It is the most restrictive production system as far as space for the bird, but also the most affordable system.
- Pros of this system: lowest mortality, cleanest houses, lowest cost.
- Cons of this system: least amount of natural behavior for the chicken, some feather and foot issues due to cage confinement.
Enriched-colony eggs are a newer development. This is in-between conventional and cage-free – a few birds together in a bigger cage with areas for natural behaviors. Satrum is working on converting some of his operation to enriched-colony housing. “It’s a cage but it’s a much larger cage, like a big condo cage, with nesting and perching and scratching areas – kind of cage-free but in a caged environment.” This change is largely driven by economics – the most affordable eggs are from conventional systems. Enriched colony is lower-cost than cage-free but with some of the benefits of cage-free. Larger cages have been in the news lately. In 2008 California passed Proposition 2 which mandates that by January 1, 2015 all egg producers in California and all eggs being importer to California come from hens that can lie down, stand up, fully extend their limbs and turn around freely (this isn’t exactly the same as enriched-colony, but similar.) California is currently battling a lawsuit over Prop 2 from other states that fear future restrictions on livestock production as part of the slippery slope California may have started. In 2012, the United Egg Producers and the Humane Society attempted to pass the Egg Bill that would have set national standards for egg production making enriched-colony housing the norm. That bill met fierce opposition from the meat industry for the same reason California is currently being sued and never passed. Despite resistance from the meat industry, I would bet that enriched-colony will soon be the standard for egg production.
- Pros of this system: very low mortality, hens are able to perform some natural behaviors in a limited way, less disease and injury compared to cage-free and pastured, and affordable production cost.
- Cons of this system: not many. The only I can come up with is that the hens are still caged.
Cage-free or free-roaming (not to be confused with free-range) are eggs from hens that live inside a house for their entire lives, and may not have access to the outdoors, but don’t live in a caged confinement inside the house so they get to engage in some natural behaviors like perching and nesting. Some farmers may choose to also give these hens limited access to the outdoors, but they don’t have to and you can’t assume that simply based on the label – the label only means they’re not inside a cage.
- Pros of this system: birds get to perform lots of natural behaviors.
- Cons of this system: higher mortality, broken bones and injuries, increased respiratory problems due to dust, and higher hen-to-hen aggression. Preliminary results from a recent study indicate that ammonia and particulate matter is considerably higher in cage-free systems, and workers are inhaling more particulate matter from manure and litter on the floor. This system also requires more labor for egg collection and manure removal.
(Here is a good resource to see and compare conventional, enriched-colony, and cage-free.)
Free-range eggs are from hens that have been allowed access to the outside. This is a bit misleading, because there are no government regulated standards for free-range, meaning these birds could be living an identical life to a cage-free bird, with the addition of a door that leads outside. Because there are no regulations about the length, duration or quality of outside access, this “outside access” could just as easily be a parking lot as it could be a grass pasture. The birds may not know the door is there, or use it, but they have access to it, so they qualify. To be fair, they could also be spending a large amount of time outside, but you don’t know that simply by reading the “free-range” label.
- Pros of this system: the same as for cage-free with potential for additional freedom if done correctly.
- Cons of this system: the same as for cage-free, with the addition that it has the potential to be intentionally misleading. To avoid this, see the section on third-party certifiers.
There is a lot of hype about pasture-raised eggs these days. It seems like the end-all-be-all for the foodies, so I decided to give it some extra discussion. I have a feeling that when people choose to buy cage-free/free-roaming or free-range eggs, they think they’re getting pasture-raised, but they’re not. Pasture-raised eggs come from hens that are actually living on a pasture, in a barnyard-like setting, not in a house or cage. These hens are allowed to forage for grass, bugs and whatever else they can find, but likely their diet is supplemented with a grain-based feed because there simply is not enough forage to provide an adequate diet. The birds are provided a nesting house where they go at night and to lay eggs. There are no regulations for pastured eggs, the USDA does not recognize a label definition for pastured eggs and there are no standards. If you’re buying pastured eggs (at about $6-$8 for 12 eggs compared to the $2.50 for 18 eggs I pay for conventional eggs) you should make certain you’re getting what you pay for. Visit the farm, or at least contact the producer.
Like I said, I visited a farm that raises pasture-fed chickens. It was a beautiful farm and I learned a lot, but I’m not going to name it here because the owner and I have a difference of opinions on organic and GMO and he preferred to go un-named. I understand that, and I’m ok with it – there is room in agriculture for multiple approaches, and that’s what enables choice. His operation utilized a rotation and multi-species model that moves chickens, pigs, sheep and cows around the pasture on a schedule that allows the animals to feed on the pasture without ruining it. After a tour of the farm, I was blown away at how much attention is paid to the soil and how much work goes into making sure the animals don’t over-use the pasture. Unlike a conventional chicken farmer who might only need to be an expert in chickens, he has to be an expert in chickens, cows, sheep, pigs, and grass and soil science. It was a cool system, to say the least. My husband and I got to taste-test the eggs that my kids collected while we were on the farm (after visiting the egg-washing room).
Could we see the tell-tale pasture-raised orange yolk that indicates a diet rich in fatty bugs? Yes. Could we taste a difference? Yes: they were definitely richer tasting than our conventional eggs. Enough so that we would pay $6 per dozen? No – like I said, we eat a lot of eggs. But maybe we would if you could make an argument that this approach is better for the environment or more nutritious.
So is it more nutritious? Chhatriwalla told me that unfortunately there aren’t very many studies that have analyzed the nutritional content of eggs from pasture-raised hens. There are a few and one concludes that while the fat and beta-carotene content were higher in range-produced eggs, the authors noted that it was not great enough to prove a true nutritional advantage of one egg type over the other. What about an environmental advantage? While at first glance it might seem this approach seems more in-line with the way nature intended, it doesn’t seem to be the most efficient use of resources. “Pasture-raised is fine for specialty,” said Satrum. “It’s difficult to do true pasture-raised on a large scale. As long as you have a small production and lots of land and a warm climate, it can be done just fine. For a commercial producer, you need lots of space. You won’t find commercial producers doing a pasture production, it’s very rare.” As I noted in the beginning, the natural way comes with the good and the bad, including higher incidence of mortality, disease, worms and predation. These downsides do reduce efficiency (and increases cost), and it requires a lot of land that could be producing more for people to eat. If we didn’t have a growing population that needs to eat and finite resources, it would be fine. But we do. And frankly, not everyone can afford to pay a dollar an egg for something that’s pretty much nutritionally the same.
- Pros of this system: best opportunity for the birds to perform natural behaviors.
- Cons of this system: higher incidence of mortality and morbidity, reduced resource efficiency, highest cost, no USDA recognized label definition and no standards.
What else should you know about housing systems?
So which is better: caged or uncaged? “Anything that adds stress is a negative to the welfare of the chicken,” Satrum said. “Air quality and cleanliness of the house is going to impact the hen. There’s always a little bit of trade-off with the different systems. In the traditional cage systems, the more modern ones are very clean, they have very good air quality, there is very little dust in the house and that’s beneficial for the hens. Cage-free has more space and exercise per hen, but it’s a maybe a little dirtier environment. A lot of it comes down to the management of the farm and the design of the buildings, none of that you can really tell from a label unless the farmer’s being very transparent.” Satrum mentioned that the equipment for cage-free is also more expensive and the labor costs are higher, which translates to a higher cost to the consumer. “In terms of animal welfare,” Satrum said, “It’s probably going to vary from farm to farm. Generally as we get more experienced at cage free, we’re getting better at it.” He told me that the mortality rate was initially pretty high in cage free, it’s improved a lot, but typically there is still a higher hen mortality rate in cage-free production. Of course, there are ways to manage that. You’ve heard of a pecking order, right? That’s a real thing. In large groups chickens have to establish a social order of bonds and to do that, they peck at each other. There are ways to deal with hen-to-hen aggression, one of which is to alter the beak of the bird. I read a lot of terrible things about beak-cutting online, but you can’t always believe what you read. “Beak trimming/cutting is pretty much a thing of the past,” said Satrum. “Today the tips of the chicks’ beaks are actually precision laser treated at the hatchery right after being hatched. This one time treatment makes it so that the tip of the beak does not grow a long sharp hook on the end but still maintains a completely natural appearance and function.” Karcher and Hermes also agreed that beak-trimming can be ok when done correctly. “A few moments of discomfort during the trimming process results in much less injury due to normal hen aggression later,” Hermes said. He also noted that work is being done to breed hens that wouldn’t need beak trimming. Another thing to note is that beak trimming is not unique to cage-free production, it’s standard practice in laying hens regardless of the housing system. Beak trimming is not the only way to control hen pecking; Satrum mentioned special lighting and proper nutrition can also limit pecking.
Another controversial issue is forced-molting. “Molting is a natural process, generally occurring in the fall,” Hermes said. “All adult birds molt so that damaged feathers can be replaced. During the molt process, energy and nutrition are used for growing feathers rather than producing eggs, so cessation of egg production also occurs.” Forced-molting is basically imitating that process in an indoor setting. Again, reading online give you the impression that producers force-molt by starvation, but that doesn’t seem to be the industry standard. “Feed withdrawal molting is not endorsed as a practice in the industry,” said Karcher. “The common practice is a non-feed withdrawal molt where hens are provided a diet that has sufficient nutrition to maintain her, but doesn’t provide the nutrition needed to produce eggs. At the same time the diet is changed, the lights are reduced from approximately 16 hours to 8 hours which signals her physiologically to stop producing eggs.” It’s a natural process that will happen anyway, it’s simply enhanced in a production setting.
My next post will talk about feed and supplements and third-party certifiers.