The current trend for egg-laying hens to be kept in cage-free barns sounds appealing from a humane perspective. But consumer food companies have pledged to procure only cage-free eggs without coordinating with their producers. As much as 72 percent of all producer capacity would have to switch to cage-free systems by 2025 to meet current commitments. Today, cage-free capacity is only 10 percent.
Hongwei Xin, PhD, and associates contrasted cage-free systems with more conventional approaches and found that the cage-free approach resulted in more airborne bacteria, ammonia, and dust. Worker safety, feed efficiency, and egg output decreased while bird mortality from conflict, bone deformities, and productions costs increased.
We need to find the best production system that will accommodate the chickens’ natural behaviors and welfare, protect workers, minimize environment impact, and still keep the price of eggs from skyrocketing.
– Dr. Hongwei Xin
Dr. Xin’s lab found a solution to many of these air quality issues by adding electrolytes to water, making it slightly more acidic, and then spraying it in the barns to hold down the dust. The modified water also reduces bacteria and neutralizes the ammonia, which makes the indoor air healthier for animals and workers.
The next step is to incorporate these findings and test them more widely in the field. The discoveries can help the industry better cope with the environmental challenges while trying to meet the increased demand.