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European study on the comparative welfare of laying hens in cage and non-cage systems

European study on the comparative welfare of laying hens in cage and non-cage systems

Archiv fuer Gefluegelkunde 70(5): 194-198

Council Directive 1999/74/EC (1999) defines three major categories of housing system: alternative (non-cage), unenriched'(conventional) cage and enriched (furnished) cage. Conventional cages are to be phased out by 1st January 2012, leaving only two categories of housing system. Both categories however comprise a wide variety of different designs and models, making it hard to draw conclusions on bird welfare in these systems. Thus, it is deemed important to gather information on the comparative welfare of hens in various egg production systems. The objective of this study is to provide information about the comparative welfare of laying hens housed in a variety of egg production systems, using evaluation criteria based on the Swedish poultry welfare monitoring system. The study involves assessments on flocks in conventional and furnished cages, single and multi-tier aviaries (barns) with and without verandas as well as fixed and mobile house free-range systems. Production assessments are measured throughout the laying period. Physical condition assessments are carried out on hens at about 35 and 60 weeks of age looking at feather cover on the back and wing area, feather hygiene, comb wounds, rear and back wounds, keel bone deformity, bumblefoot and broken claws. Environmental assessments are taken at about 35 and 60 weeks of age. The basics of the evaluation programme are results obtained on production, mortality and physical condition in relation to stipulated minimum requirements given as percentages of defect birds. Each physical condition assessment parameter is scored from I to 4, where 1 means a serious defect and 4 means very good condition. For the physical condition assessments, only scores of 1 and 2 are included in the minimum requirements. Only those hens are counted in the total percentage of defect hens.Early indications show that feed usage of hens in cage systems (both conventional and furnished) is lower than in non-cage systems, even though the bodyweight and egg production of hens is higher in cage systems than in non-cage systems. Interim results suggest that mortality is probably low or very low in conventional and furnished cages, moderate in barns/aviaries and highest in the free-range system. This may be one indication of poorer welfare in free-range systems, and taken together with the apparent lower production, it may be an important one that warrants further investigation. To date, all systems studied have met the Swedish welfare standards for rear and back wounds, feather hygiene and broken claws. The most favourable housing systems for laying hens in terms of comb wounds, keel bone deformity and bumblefoot are conventional and fumished cages.

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