Guest Commentary: Ask the chickens what they want

Guest Commentary: Ask the chickens what they want

By Jim Fraley

Several major national restaurant chains and food service companies have announced recent decisions to move toward "cage-free" eggs. To most people, this seems logical. We want our chickens to be able to socialize and to roam freely, right?

An important — and in this case, overlooked — consideration is what the chicken wants.

Recent research (sustainableeggcoalition.org), funded by the same companies that are making these moves to cage-free, has definitively provided a surprising answer. Chickens don't like cage free. In fact, researchers found that the more room you give a chicken, the more problems surface.

In this replicated study, animal science experts evaluated three systems: a conventional "caged" system, an enriched housing system, and an aviary system. The conventional system placed six hens in a cage providing 80 square inches per bird. The enriched system provided more room, a scratching pad, and placed 60 hens in an area that provided 116 square inches per bird. Finally, the aviary cage-free system placed as many as 1,704 birds in open areas with perches and scratching pads and 144 square inches of space per bird.

Researchers noted that bird deaths were much higher in the cage-free production system. Deaths were attributed to cannibalism and excessive vent pecking. (The vent is the orifice from which chickens lay eggs). Breast bone and rib bone breakage were also major issues in this housing system. These injuries were the result of failed landings from perching areas.

We have to remember the common phrase, "pecking order." As animals socialize, they determine an order of dominance. It is much easier to establish order in a pen of six hens, versus establishing it in a flock of 1,704 hens. Even in a flock that size, one hen will attempt to seek dominance and peck other birds mercilessly — even to the point of death.

Researchers also examined air quality. They noted that by allowing scratching pads, the birds were placing more particulate matter in the air. This negatively impacted breathing for both the birds and for the farm workers who provided care for them.

The purpose of this three-year study was to evaluate the pros and cons of these three systems. It's not to say one is better than the other. However, if food companies are making the change to cage-free systems believing that such systems improve animal welfare, are better for the chicken and the environment, and improve socialization — they're wrong. The chickens have told us that much.

Jim Fraley, a lifelong advocate for animal agriculture, is the livestock program director for the Illinois Farm Bureau. He has cared for livestock his entire adult life and continues to do so today. Fraley serves on university research committees, is a national livestock organization leader and manages several state livestock associations. He earned a bachelor's degree in agricultural science from Illinois State University and a master's degree in animal sciences from the University of Illinois.

-