Research shows stockmanship has a bigger influence on hen welfare than housing system

Free range egg producers influence hen welfare more than their chosen housing system, research published today shows.

That’s according to the British Free Range Egg Producers Association (BFREPA) which has responded to the findings of a study examining the economic and welfare merits of flat deck and multi-tier systems.

It was the first piece of independent research of its kind to be carried out in the UK.

Producers attending the Pig & Poultry Fair at Stoneleigh Park on 15 May were the first to hear the results at a seminar hosted by BFREPA.

Chief executive Robert Gooch said the project has “put to bed” any argument that one system is better than the other.

“Flat deck sheds are the bedrock of free range eggs and remain very popular with producers,” Mr Gooch said.

“Multi-tier units have been growing in popularity and many of our members are investing in them when they expand.

“Until now we have lacked independent, scientific analysis of how they differ in terms of the welfare and economic outcomes, but today’s research will put to bed any claims that one is better than the other.

“The range of results shows that, regardless of housing system, the expertise of the producer is the most important factor.”

Funded by Scottish Government with BFREPA member participation, The Scottish Rural University College and ADAS worked with 42 flocks over a 12-month period.

Scientists looked at egg production, mortality, feather cover, keel bone damage, foot condition and ammonia. They examined how shed type, bird age, breed, flock size, shed age and the presence of perches affected performance.

Hens housed in multi-tier sheds laid slightly more eggs, boosting the system’s economic credentials, but being afforded more freedom of movement to different levels of the shed resulted in a higher prevalence of keel bone fractures and deviations.

In flat deck sheds keel bone fractures were lower but mortality was shown to be higher during the study. No conclusions could be drawn on the reason for higher mortality.

Gooch added: “The results vary far more from shed to shed than they do from system to system and confirms what producers already know; every flock performs differently.

“It is clear that there are advantages and disadvantages to both systems and the essential component to ensuring high standards of hen welfare is good stockmanship, regardless of a producer’s choice of housing system.”

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