8 février 2024

Myths Cracked - Is It Better to Raise Hens Indoors?

Bien-être des animaux

Myth: It’s better to raise hens outside, like farmers used to do.
Myth Cracked: The truth is – raising hens indoors is better for the birds and for consumers who want safe, nutritious eggs.

When Joe Hudson, the co-founder of Burnbrae Farms, began raising large numbers of chickens and selling their eggs in the 1940s, most of his birds were raised outdoors, at least in the milder months. That was the norm back then. But soon, he and other egg farmers realized that life for a hen living outside wasn’t ideal.

Many of the challenges of housing birds outdoors back in the 1940s still remain today. With harsh Canadian weather extremes, nature’s predators, like foxes, mink and raccoons, and rampant disease threats, there is a higher risk for birds to get sick or die when they are raised outdoors.

Eggs can get damaged more easily or lost altogether if hens choose to lay their eggs outside. These eggs also pose a challenge for food safety because of the increased risk of cracking and being soiled by dirt and manure.

Wild birds also pose a very serious disease threat because they can be carriers of avian influenza, among other significant pathogens. Rodents, too, can be carriers of diseases like E. coli and Salmonella .  Therefore, housing birds outdoors increases the likelihood that they may contract one of the fatal illnesses carried and spread by wild animals.

Over the years, the Hudsons – guided by evolving poultry science and best practices – began building barns specifically to house hens indoors. These barns provide a healthier (for the birds and for us), safer (predator free) and more comfortable (climate-controlled) environment and allow birds to lay eggs all year round.

First Indoor Housing

One housing system that became popular during the post-war period was conventional housing. Housed in small enclosures in groups of five or six, birds could easily be monitored and cared for by farmers and veterinarians; chickens had continuous access to food and water and were generally healthier than birds raised with access to outdoors.

With smaller social groups, hens were not as aggressive because they could quickly establish and easily maintain their natural dominance hierarchies. Also, eggs laid in these barns were much safer to eat.  Because the floors were lightly sloped, eggs rolled out and were easily collected from clean, dry, manure-free egg belts.

Although conventional housing served an important purpose as the Canadian egg industry grew after WWII, ensuring eggs were clean and birds were healthy, housing systems have continued to evolve as we learn more about what chickens need to thrive. As a result, the whole Canadian egg farming community has decided to phase out this type of housing by 2036 .

As someone who lives and breathes poultry behaviour every day, I can tell you that hens like to be sheltered. It helps them to feel safe and secure. You might be surprised to learn that when hens housed indoors are given regular access to the outdoors, most birds choose to stay inside. Those that do venture outside stay close to the barn entrances and don’t stay outside for long. Have you ever heard of Henny Penny? Hens really do seem to think the sky is falling if they go outside. They truly are “chicken!”

Indoor Hen Housing, Today

The commitment to animal care at Burnbrae Farms remains as strong today as it was over 80 years ago when Joe Hudson started the family egg farm. We continue to improve what we do by incorporating the latest research on housing – along with our own daily experiences – to ensure we provide the highest standards of animal care regardless of housing type. All our birds have continuous access to nutritious feed and water and are monitored daily by trained caretakers (or as one of our staff put it: “chicken tenders”).

We are also committed to providing consumer choice in the grocery store. That’s why we offer eggs from hens raised in a variety of housing styles. While we learned about conventional above, here’s the scoop on the other indoor housing types: enriched colony and free run.

Enriched colony housing offers many benefits for the birds, caretakers, consumers and our environment. This modern housing type is becoming more common – and for good reason. Enriched colony barns have larger enclosures for groups of 16 to 60 birds and offer furnishings like elevated perches, enclosed nesting areas and scratch pads, which hens use to fulfill their instincts to roost, nest and dust bathe, respectively. Eggs are clean as they roll from the nests onto conveyor belts or are collected by hand. It is also easier for caretakers and veterinarians to monitor bird health because individual birds are easier to distinguish from one another and observe their condition. The environment is better for farm workers, too, with less dust and ammonia generated by manure. You might be surprised to learn that enriched colony housing has a lower carbon footprint compared to cage-free. Eggs from this type of housing system are more affordable, too; hens are more straightforward to manage with better livability.

What we call free run housing in Canada, or “cage-free” in other parts of the world, often looks like a multi-tiered jungle gym for chickens. Hens in these aviary barns can move between levels by walking up ramps or even by taking short flights, although chickens are far from graceful and may accidentally injure themselves in doing so. These open concept barns are equipped with nests and perches on multiple levels. Flooring can be made of slats or dust and straw, which they use to fully express both foraging and dust bathing behaviour. However, aviaries have some drawbacks too. The dust and ammonia in the air can make the air quality poorer for the birds and the farm workers. Housing birds in such a large social group can result in problematic social behaviours that jeopardize health, like feather pecking, more likely to occur and harder to manage. Also, because birds have full contact with their manure, the potential for disease outbreaks is higher. So even though birds in free run housing are, by definition, “freer” than those housed in cages, they are also more prone to injury and disease.

The National Farm Animal Care Council (NFACC) has a rigorous code development process that was used to create the Codes of Practice for most farmed animal species in Canada. As a direct result of this process, a committee of animal welfare and poultry experts created a new national standard for pullets (young hens) and laying hens in 2017.  The Code Development Committee incorporated the best available poultry science to create a new standard for housing, which included specific requirements for enriched colony, free run and free range housing to meet the needs of the birds. Part of the NFACC process is for the Code to be reviewed after five years and mandatorily revised after 10 years to reflect any new developments in our understanding of poultry science.

A Commitment That Crosses Generations

There is much to consider with the tradeoffs and benefits of each type of housing, but you can rest assured knowing that at Burnbrae Farms, every hen, every day receives the best possible care from our people, guided by science-based standards and a spirit of continuous improvement.

The truth is, keeping hens indoors provides many benefits including keeping the birds safe, protected, and healthy. And healthy hens mean a safe, nutritious product for egg lovers across Canada.

Dr. Michelle Hunniford

National Animal Care Specialist, Burnbrae Farms