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Commercial egg production systems

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Ratification Date: 01 Dec 2013

Policy

Commercial egg production systems should provide for the health, nutrition, and psychological wellbeing of the hens. Continuing scientific research into hen welfare in different production systems under Australian conditions is essential.

Background

Laying hens are housed in different commercial management systems. Each system provides varying levels of protection from hazards including predation, theft, parasitism, disease, temperature variation, seasonal variation in light intensity and feed wastage. Commercial egg production systems, for the purpose of this policy, are defined as those where laying hens (chickens) are kept under commercial management systems for the purpose of egg production for human consumption. The commercial egg production systems legally permitted in Australia include caged, barn, free range and organic, however Tasmania has announced the phasing out of battery hen production.

The European Commission's Welfare of Laying Hen's Directive came into effect on 1 January 2012, banning the use of conventional battery cages for laying hens and the marketing of eggs from hens housed in such cages. It is the first piece of European legislation to phase out a method of production because of animal welfare concerns. New Zealand will phase out the use of battery cages by 2022 following the introduction of a new code of animal welfare. New battery cages can no longer be installed there, while cages already in use will be progressively removed from use over the next 10 years.

The welfare of hens used for egg production is a matter of concern for the veterinary profession and the general public here in Australia and overseas. Layer bird housing is at the forefront, but other issues — such as the breeding of layer stock, disposal of male chicks, moulting practices, rearing of pullets, transport of birds and disposal of birds at end of lay — are also of concern to the public and profession.

The Animal Welfare Science Centre Melbourne is currently undertaking a research project to elucidate the benefits and challenges of free-range systems on the welfare of laying hens. At the moment there is little scientific evidence supporting that access to an outdoor range yields clear welfare benefits to the hens.

Guidelines

  1. Caged, barn, free range and organic egg production systems have advantages and disadvantages, and no single management system caters entirely for health, biosecurity, food safety, environmental sustainability or welfare outcomes.
  2. The Model Code of Practice for the Welfare of Animals – Domestic Poultry, 4th edition 2002 and the Australian Animal Welfare Standards and Guidelines - Land Transport of Livestock 1st edition 2012 are strongly supported. Regular review of these codes, standards and guidelines is encouraged.
  3. The welfare of the hens managed under every production system requires a comprehensive and whole-of-life approach. It is recognised that one of the most critical inputs to achieving optimum welfare in every system is the standard of stockmanship and husbandry achieved by the farm management. In order to continually improve welfare outcomes both new and current poultry workers and managers should undertake regular, recognised training in husbandry, welfare, food safety and biosecurity. Particular attention must be given to training of farm staff in day-to-day management of housing systems to ensure consistent management practices and optimum welfare outcomes.
  4. Robust scientific research into the welfare of poultry that encourages decisions based on science evidence rather than anthropomorphic argument is strongly supported. Areas of urgent research need include, but are not limited to:
    • Optimum management of alternative and existing housing systems
    • The welfare implications of housing hens at varying stocking densities in cages, in barns and on range pasture
    • Strategies for reduction of cannibalism and pecking
    • Comparisons between layer strains for their suitability in different housing systems
    • Pharmaceuticals suitable for treatment of hens during egg production.
  5. Veterinarians are uniquely placed to assist poultry producers to manage a wide range of issues including health, welfare, biosecurity, nutrition and food safety, and every commercial egg producer should have a veterinarian with poultry experience available to advise regularly on these matters. The veterinarian has an obligation to report issues of biosecurity concern including notifiable diseases and monitoring for diseases of human and animal health significance.

The use of infra-red beak treatment at day-old where birds are at risk of cannibalism under their management system is supported. Beak trimming at an age older than one day should only be completed by experienced and trained operators using a hot blade and only when authorised by an experienced poultry veterinarian

Other relevant policies and position statements

Beak trimming of commercial poultry

References

Advantages and disadvantages of different housing systems for the welfare of laying hens. www.laywel.eu

Australian Animal Welfare Standards and Guidelines - Land Transport of Livestock 1st edition 2012

Domestic Poultry Code: www.publish.csiro.au/Books/download.cfm?ID=3451

Model Code of Practice for the Welfare of Animals – Domestic Poultry, 4th edition 2002

New Zealand Animal Welfare Codes (Layer Hens) 2012 wxw.biosecurity.govt.nz/animal-welfare/codes/layer-hens/index.htm

Date of ratification by AVA Board December 2013