Most eggs sold in supermarkets today are from modern caged or conventional housing where the hen shares space with about 5 to 6 other hens, have access to feed and water and can stretch their wings. An enriched cage (or colony housing) has "enrichments" such as perches, a nesting area and a scratch area. These enrichments allow hens to perform some of their natural behaviors. Enriched cages also typically provide more spave than a conventional cage. Cage-free (non-cage) eggs come from hens free to roam, perch, scratch and nest inside a large barn with several thousand other hens. Organic eggs come from hens fed a strict diet made up of only organically grown feed ingredients. The hens live most of their day in a barn with many other hens but have some access to the outdoors. Free Range hens spend most of their time on pasture with little access to the indoors. Whatever system the hens are raised in requires care from properly trained personnel. No one system is perfect but offers the consumer a choice in the eggs he or she purchases.
Graph: Depicts advantages and disadvantages of various layer-hen housing systems (Courtesy of the American Veterinary Medical Association).
The chart below provides a representative sample of contributors to the welfare of laying hens and illustrates how they may or may not be satisfied within particular housing systems. The most welfare-friendly animal production systems will be those that maximize the positive aspects of system types while modifying those aspects that are less welfare-friendly. For example, preliminary research on cages for housing laying hens indicates that cages modified to include nest boxes and perches may better accommodate hens’ behavioral needs, while maintaining the health and disease control benefits of confinement housing.
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