Decision time as conventional cages reach end of the line

Producers with conventional cages for laying hens have just a few months left to decide whether to invest in new enriched colony or free-range equipment, or prepare to quit the sector ahead of next year’s ban.

According to poultry specialist Justin Emery of ADAS, the clock is ticking. The ban on conventional cages comes into effect on 1 January 2012 and, with a refit of existing laying hen accommodation likely to take around six months, producers have until mid-summer to make their final decisions.

“It has been a very frustrating time for producers,” Mr Emery told a recent meeting at Harper Adams University College, Shropshire. “EU confirmation of what the new regulation would entail was released relatively late (2008), and there is still concern over how it will be interpreted by inspectors on-farm.”

The new EU Directive for laying hens demands a minimum space allowance of 750sq cm a bird, of which 600sq cm must be ‘usable’. Unusable areas, which are deducted from the overall colony accommodation footprint, include nest boxes and elevated areas used for scratch baths. Areas with a head height of under 20cm are also invalid, according to the guidelines.

“The concern for producers is budgeting how many birds can be accommodated within a colony system depending on how the rules are interpreted,” explained Mr Emery.

“The regulation also contains a number of apparent contradictions due to the wording. For example, a minimum feed trough length of 12cm multiplied by the number of hens must be provided. So where a feeder runs through the colony area, the length should arguably only allow for hens feeding from just one side.

“But if the same trough is positioned at the back of a colony area below a dividing wall, allowing hens in an adjacent colony to also feed from it, the regulation then allows both sides to be used to calculate feeder length for the appropriate colony,” he said.

“The regulation’s wording has made life very difficult for DEFRA. A lot of time has been invested in training egg marketing inspectors on the new rules and how to measure the colony areas,” he added.

Producers will find other contradictions exist in the new regulation. “For example, rules state two nipple drinkers must be within reach of each hen,” explained Mr Emery. “In non-cage systems, producers work on a nipple drinker for every 10 hens, but in a colony designed for 80 birds the actual provision might be nowhere near enough.

“The golden rule for producers to consider is ‘what is the welfare outcome for the hen?’ That is what inspectors will consider when looking at whether colony design adequately meets the new regulation for the number of hens housed.”

A number of medium-sized egg producers had committed to replacing their conventional cages before the regulation detail was finalised, added Mr Emery. “Research in 2009 suggested typical costs were £15-25 a hen to install colony equipment, depending on design and quality, compared with £22 a hen for a free-range system with a population of 9 hens a square metre or £18-£22 a hen with a population of 15 hens a square metre.

“The level of investment is considerable, especially as many producer’ margins are being squeezed currently by high feed prices.

“However, I don’t expect to see an exodus from the egg sector. I believe most UK producers will comply with the new regulation when it comes into effect on 1 January next year,” he added.

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