On the ground - John Sattler
Living conditions of hens
The CSIRO research report showed hen welfare is very important to Australians.
Hen welfare was the main issue of interest and concern identified in the CSIRO research findings with responses strongly indicating the community cares how their eggs are produced. This tracks closely with the high level of community interest in cage egg production and the long term trend towards free range egg consumption.
The egg industry has responded to these trends by substantially increasing free range capacity in step with consumer demand over the last 15 years. The industry continues to produce cage eggs because there remains substantial demand for them. While free range and barn-laid continue to increase, there is insufficient demand for eggs from these systems for the industry to switch all of its production.
There are objective welfare trade-offs between cage systems and systems that involve less confinement. However, these factual considerations are often not engaging to members of the community. The CSIRO research outputs confirm this, indicating that Australians tend to form their views on the living conditions of hens based on their values. Some people look at hens in a cage system and consider it acceptable for animals to be confined in a farming context. Others consider it unacceptable.
It is these different perspectives that drive the CSIRO research findings that there are two significant groups within the Australian community: those that consider the price of eggs to be the most important consideration and those that consider price to be least important. The egg industry considers both of these perspectives to be valid because the industry exists to serve the whole community and there is nothing to be gained by dismissing a popular perspective.
The most significant progress has been the expansion of alternative production systems in response to consumer demand. Over the past ten years cage egg production has reduced from approximately 77% of the national flock to approximately 50% and free range production is now the largest segment in supermarkets with approximately 45% of total volume.
The egg industry has sought to contribute to debates around cage egg production by conducting research to inform consideration of welfare issues. This includes measuring the stress levels of hens
in different production systems based on the level of corticosterone hormones found in eggs from hens in each of cage, barn and free range systems. Although this is only one indicator of hen stress, the research indicated there was little difference in stress levels of hens across production systems.
The egg industry has also taken steps to increase transparency on egg production systems to enable the community to form views on hen living conditions. This includes Australian Eggs undertaking public engagement activities that demonstrate the nature of each production system as well as egg farmers opening their farms to visitors.
Traditional approaches to animal welfare have been supplemented by new perspectives on positive and negative experiences.
Natural behaviours are those that an animal commonly engages in when able to do so. Natural behaviours can be taken to be either a positive experience for that animal (for example, hens naturally flock, forage and dust bathe) or a negative experience (for example, pecking the feathers of other hens or smothering).
In the past, ensuring positive natural behaviours was not a strong focus of animal husbandry in agriculture industries. Approaches to animal welfare were generally built around the impact of a farming system on the biological function of farm animals to determine acceptable welfare outcomes. This approach is still valid but has been supplemented by new perspectives on animal welfare which relate to the extent to which animals have positive and negative experiences.
This development has been driven by changes in community expectations about the importance of animal welfare.
The egg industry recognises the increasing community interest and concern in relation to hen welfare and is working to bring these values to a practical commercial setting. To achieve this, research will be required to better understand and measure welfare outcomes and accurate information will be required to understand the relationship between different aspects of hen welfare.
This includes taking steps to understand emerging perspectives on animal welfare in circumstances where they can be contentious. A recent study sought to bring some clarity to this area by considering animal welfare policy and assessment frameworks. One of the key conclusions was individual values play a role in forming views on animal welfare. This has provided important guidance to the egg industry in planning ways to progress consideration of hen natural behaviours and welfare issues more broadly.
The egg industry is also progressing ways to better understand and measure the impact of farming practices on hen welfare. Recently commenced research seeks to progress the difficult area of measuring the affective state of hens in terms of both positive and negative experiences. This research seeks to use developments in human and animal health to explore whether micro RNA biomarkers could allow hen welfare to be objectively measured.
A commitment to good animal husbandry is critical to success in egg farming.
Good animal husbandry is driven by two factors: the quality of the farmer and the animal husbandry practices used.
Egg farming requires dedication as the constancy of the process requires flocks and systems to be checked and then checked again to ensure that a problem has not arisen. Importantly, a commitment to good husbandry is critical to success in egg farming and farm managers that do not display dedication and intuition for finding and solving problems do not last long. That said, entry by inexperienced farmers and the movement of staff over time creates a real challenge in maintaining trained farm managers that can consistently perform to a high standard.
Animal husbandry practices are used to resolve ongoing production issues and are undertaken in a manner that minimises the pain, stress or injury to hens. Animal husbandry practices such as beak trimming and the disposal of male chicks can be the subject of concern as they can involve trade-offs between different aspects of animal welfare and sometimes require egg farmers to make difficult choices to arrive at the best possible welfare outcome.
The practice of beak trimming can be controversial as it involves removing the tip of a hen’s beak. Beak trimming is done to manage the negative natural behaviour of feather pecking. Hens can peck for a range of reasons from curiosity to dominance and the problem tends to arise in large flocks where it is more difficult for hens to establish a recognised social order (commonly referred to as the pecking order).
To address this, chicks are given a laser treatment that deadens and removes the tip of the beak. This allows the beak to grow back without the natural sharp hook that causes damage when feather pecking occurs. In most cases this single treatment is effective for the life of the hen.
It is currently unavoidable that male chicks are hatched as part of breeding layer hens and as they are not productive and are produced in large numbers they have to be euthanised. In the past, this was done through maceration that acts quickly to minimise pain to the chick but this created controversy as it provided awful and confronting imagery.
This euthanising process is now supplemented with carbon dioxide gas so chicks are unconscious before maceration. It is hoped that research being conducted internationally into chick sexing will provide opportunities to avoid this process entirely in the near future.
Provide greater transparency on the living conditions of hens
Explore the relationship between natural behaviours, hen experiences and community values
Invest in consistently high welfare outcomes through training