There’s been a lot of talk lately about eggs and layer hen welfare. And no wonder, with approximately 5.3 million hens in Australia still confined to battery cages, but also, a permanent shift away from battery cages on the table. After more than 7 years of review the national animal welfare Standards and Guidelines for Poultry have been finally finalised with a confirmed phase out date for battery cages.
But what does this mean for egg buyers? Australians know that cage eggs come from layer hens reared in poor welfare conditions, and that good welfare simply can’t be achieved in a battery cage – that’s why nearly 8 in 10 Australians oppose the use of these barren wire cages. But it’s not always clear what the alternatives are. When people think of higher welfare, there’s often a strong focus on outdoor access and stocking density. While these are important aspects, there are many other factors we need to consider when keeping layer hens happy and healthy.
What does a layer hen need for good welfare?
Curious and intelligent, layer hens love to socialise and explore their surroundings. For good welfare, hens need an enriched environment with space to move freely and perform natural behaviours, such as dustbathing and foraging in quality litter, and places to perch, which encourage movement and helps strengthen their bones. It’s also important for layer hens to feel comfortable and safe within their surrounds and protected from diseases. Hens even when reared in free-range systems spend a lot of time inside a shed, so the quality of the indoor environment is a key component to ensuring good welfare.
A well-managed indoor housing system can provide all a layer hen needs for good welfare and can be a very good alternative to a cage housing system. Indoor systems can also benefit hens by providing protection from weather elements, predators, and disease transmission. Barn-laid eggs are also a good option for budget conscious consumers wanting to shop with animal welfare in mind and support better welfare for layer hens.
But free range is best, isn’t it?
The label of ‘free range’ can conjure up an image of layer hens living in a natural environment, roaming in paddocks, and experiencing good welfare. On a well-managed free-range farm this is largely the case. However, not all farms are managed so well, and having access to the outdoors does not always mean better welfare if adequate space and shelter, palatable vegetation, and a secure, maintained range are not provided. To carry the label of ‘free range’ in Australia, producers are only legally required to provide meaningful access to an outdoor area with some form of shelter and an outdoor stocking density of up to 10,000 layer hens per hectare. There are no specific legal requirements for the amount shelter or other provisions to make the outdoor area inviting to encourage layer hens to use it. In addition to the quality of the outdoor area, the indoor environment for free-range hens is just as important for good welfare. These important inputs remain at the discretion of the producer, so it is always best to seek further information directly from them where possible. In some cases, a well-managed indoor system can provide better welfare than a poorly managed free-range system.
What about RSPCA Approved?
Layer hens on farms with RSPCA Approved certification are reared with all the important provisions described above, with farms adhering to 218 Standard requirements to ensure good welfare for hens. Egg farms with the RSPCA Approved certification are regularly assessed by specially trained RSPCA Assessors, to ensure the Standard requirements continue to be met by farmers prioritising good welfare for their layer hens. The RSPCA Approved Farming Scheme Standard for layer hens allows for enriched indoor and outdoor housing that meet both physical and mental needs of the birds. Currently however all RSPCA Approved eggs available in Australia are from free-range producers.
Of course, choosing any cage free option instead of cage eggs is an improvement for layer hen welfare, whether that be barn laid, free range or RSPCA Approved. Every purchase of an animal-based product like eggs, is a vote for the farming system that produced it and making an impact for animals doesn’t always mean purchasing boutique products. For those that are budget conscious, making the choice to purchase barn-laid eggs is a positive step towards improving layer hen welfare and sends a strong message that Australians are more than ready to say bye, bye to battery cages.
Interested in reading more? Cracking Egg Labelling or How to choose higher welfare, no matter your budget