By Dr. Priya Motupalli
Following a tidal wave of cage-free egg commitments from major businesses like McDonald’s, Nestlé and Panera Bread in 2015, the $9 billion egg industry is now at the critical point of determining how to safely transition hens to alternative systems in order to supply the demand in 2016 and beyond.
As an animal scientist, I had a lot of preconceived notions about alternative farms — some stemmed from my academic background, and others from simply working on farm and recognizing the complexity of shifting whole systems.
An opportunity to test these notions was offered to me by John Brunnquell, CEO of Egg Innovations, one of the top 45 egg companies in the U.S., and the largest commercially-viable system in the U.S. that allows birds access to pasture. Brunnquell made some bold claims about his facility, but I wanted to experience it firsthand. Here’s what I expected to see:
- Birds using only about 10 percent of the range offered to them. This is a number that has been repeated time and again by colleagues, academics and industry. This figure is one of those things that gets passed around until it becomes part of the agricultural canon. It’s often used to suggest that birds don’t really want to be outside — which may in fact be the case for individual birds, but it’s not necessarily indicative of flock behavior as a whole.
- Birds displaying flighty and nervous behavior — so if you want to pick one of them up for a health check, you better act fast and grab with conviction!
- Immediately apparent issues of feather-pecking/cannibalism.
- A high mortality rate. Typically, alternative laying-hen systems struggle to match the low mortality rates of conventional systems.
- A majority of the birds staying indoors, as the weather was grey and misty.
But what I experienced firsthand was not what I expected:
Birds using more range
In the barn I visited, the young hens had only been there for about 30 days and were already using about 20 percent of the outdoor range. Waterers at pasture encouraged range use, and losses due to aerial predators were controlled thanks to plastic owl decoys lined up like soldiers.
Birds in alternative systems tend to have fewer foot problems than those in conventional systems, but when they do have foot problems, they are usually more severe. I wanted to check this out among the hens we observed myself.
My bird-catching senses clicked into gear, and I lunged as fast as I could to grab the nearest bird, who skittered away. Brunnquell looked at me with a bemused expression and proceeded to calmly – and slowly – put his hand down on a nearby hen who looked up at him inquisitively and then turned away to continue pecking at her food. I marveled at the human-animal relationship that he and his staff had cultivated with the birds at a system of this scale.
When I did finally pick up a bird myself (with no fuss at all!), conducting a health check was a breeze! Animal welfare scientists have long recognized the importance of positive human-animal relationships in promoting good farm animal welfare and ensuring productivity, and this was a classic example.
No severe feather-pecking
Feather-pecking was apparent, and some scars from healed pecking wounds on combs were visible on a small percentage of the birds in the house, but severe feather-pecking was not immediately obvious. It was nowhere near what I had come to expect from some large-scale alternative systems.
Low mortality rates
Brunnquell explained that records indicated that his birds outperform caged flocks by 2 percent (according to breeder guidelines) on average, and his annual mortality rate is low, between 5 and 8 percent.
Birds chose to be outside
20,000 birds had free access to a 50-acre pasture, from a 24,000 square-foot barn during the day. They were kept inside the barn at night, with access to two miles of perches, food and water, nest boxes, and a scratching area that ran the length of the building. In the morning, when the pop-holes were opened up and down both sides of the building, hens spilled out immediately and began exploring, foraging, scratching and fluffing their feathers in the rain.
Within about 20 minutes, a third of the barn was outside getting their morning exercise. Many birds were still in the barn; but that being said, choice is a tenant of good animal welfare. It’s recognized that environments that provide animals more control and allow them an opportunity to make more choices, like expressing individual social or thermal preferences, have a positive effect on their welfare.
In an industry where animals tend to have very little control over their own environment, allowing hens to make their own decision to stay inside or be at pasture (as long as they have been trained to understand the choice) has a profound influence on their welfare.
The hens seek affection
Who knew hens were basically Labradors? The farm staff informed me that the hens constantly sought “affection,” and one of the staff proceeded to teach me how to conduct a proper “butt scratch.” To my surprise, the hens fluffed up their feathers in response and leaned into it.
The bottom line
John Brunnquell told me that animal welfare became important to him because of his “belief that it could be good business,” and it was apparent during my visit that he was proud of his proven ability to combine good animal welfare with productivity and profitability, particularly when he was told that this “flat out couldn’t be done.” His interest in animal welfare, however, quickly developed from a simple business decision into a core value of his company. He initially transitioned to cage-free production, but has recently pushed the envelope further and now produces free-range and pasture-raised eggs.
Conventional systems developed for many legitimate reasons, one of which was to safeguard animal health, an important component of animal welfare. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that they safeguard animal welfare as a whole or that they provide for positive experiences on farm. Even when there is general consensus that animal welfare should be continuously improved on farm, arguments for specific practices, including confinement, often stem around the notion that because we don’t have all the answers yet or experts don’t agree on the best way forward, we shouldn’t move at all.
John and Egg Innovations prove that this argument doesn’t make sense. His vision to move the needle on animal welfare in the egg marketplace is underpinned by the scale of his operation. He shared, “We’re bringing scale to pasture, in order to drive costs out of the system, but that [doesn’t mean] we concede on hen quality of life.” John and his team at Egg Innovations are showing that alternative systems can be brought to scale without sacrificing animal welfare or profitability. This lesson is particularly topical as the industry transitions away from caged operations, due to the multitude of public commitments we’re seeing from corporations. With or without butt scratches, systems like these are worth leaning into.
Priya Motupalli is an Animal Welfare Scientist with World Animal Protection. She advises on animal welfare and best practice on farm via an evidence-based approach. Prior to her work with World Animal Protection, Priya received her PhD in Applied Animal Behaviour and Welfare from Harper Adams University in the UK. Her research focused on dairy cattle welfare, and the welfare and production implications of allowing farm animals more control over their own environment. Alongside scientific publications, she has been featured in Meat Management Magazine for her excellence in science communication and written invited guest pieces for the Scientific American online blog network.