Out of all farm animals, Poultry farming is one of the highly ventured into, from backyard to the large scale commercial farming. Despite the economic yield to farmers from rearing them for their eggs or meat, welfare of chicken has not really been considered, especially in the aspect of housing that permits and allows exhibition of their natural behavioral instincts. Like humans, chickens find some places more comfortable than the others to feed, engage in physical activity, sleep, and comfortably stay in such places. Cage methods of poultry farming which are commonly practiced, and favored for their lucrative nature in most cases infringe on the freedoms of chickens. Chicken are sentient animals, because they perceive and respond to sensations of any kind. Sentience is an ability of a creature to experience sensation and emotion. Like humans, animals also feel pain, hunger and thirst, and respond to different stimuli. Therefore, their welfare needs to be recognised, protected, and improved. There is a strong connection between health, productivity and welfare.
According to the Terrestrial Code, Animal Welfare means “the physical and mental state of an animal in relation to the conditions in which it lives and dies.” Animal welfare is closely linked to animal health, the health and wellbeing of people, and the sustainability of socio-economic and ecological systems.
Statista, (2022), and Yuhuan and Fu, (2019) report that among domestic animals, hens are considered the most farmed land animal globally totaling to 33 billion in 2020, and out of these, there are 7.9 million egg-laying hens in the world. These statistics demonstrate the high demand, supply and trading of chicken and eggs globally, which has led to rapid growth of industrialized commercial layer-hen farms. Unfortunately, such industrialized systems do not support management and welfare of the animals in a way that respects their innate needs or enables their expression of normal behaviors. Therefore, these have led to the perpetuation of poor welfare practices that cause immense suffering, pain, and poor well-being for hens.
In response to these dire issues, there have been increasing actions towards improving what is currently observed as hen welfare practices.
The World Organization for Animal Health (WOAH) established 5 freedoms for animals including hens, and these freedoms are the basis of animal welfare, and are as follows;
- Freedom from hunger and thirst – meaning the expected provision of adequate measures of food and water provided in timely, consistent, balanced, and nutritious rations devoid of contaminants and free of disease-causing organisms.
- Freedom from discomfort – provision of a comfortable environment that involves healthy, quality housing, bedding, and existence that is devoid of restrictions, unpleasant perceptions, and harsh environmental conditions (including but not limited to rainy, extreme cold or hot weather, noise, or fearful situations).
- Freedom from pain, injury, and disease – providing adequate care and environmental conditions that are devoid of, but not limited to any form of infliction of painful or injurious experience (flogging, kicking, fighting, etc.), provision of standard animal management practice and biosecurity measures; prompt and quality veterinary care and treatment; and good antimicrobial stewardship.
- Freedom to express normal and natural behavior – by providing sufficient space, proper facilities and company of the animal’s own kind.
- Freedom from fear and distress – this includes considerate humane treatment of animals in a manner that does not induce infuriation, fear, anxiety, distress, or other forms of psychological suffering to the animals.
Good hen welfare practices (or any animal welfare practice) should start with the farmer/personnel or caregiver of such animal(s). It is important that those in care of hens or those who establish poultry farms have a good, positive, and welfare-enhancing mindset and behaviors towards the animals they maintain. Therefore, those who care for laying hens and pullets should demonstrate genuine care, responsible farm planning and hen management, and skills and knowledge of hen behavior.
Key features of systems and practices that provide good hen welfare and management include the ability of hens to lay their eggs in a nest and to carry out normal behaviors and desire for activities such as hen perching, foraging (pecking and scratching), and dust‐bathing. Housing with appropriate stocking density, freedom of movement, and environmental enrichment, fresh unpolluted air and good ventilation, adequate space – for walking, perching, flying, foraging etc. should also be part of the key chicken welfare and management systems and practices. There should also be good and comfortable lighting, adequate temperature, good litter, minimal noise levels, and good uncontaminated food and water. Furthermore, there should be no physical mutilation, presence of balanced natural breeding programs and growth, good antimicrobial stewardship, quality and timely veterinary care and treatment on demand, and humane catching and handling. Lastly, such good hen welfare and hen management systems and practices should consider humane transportation, humane culling and slaughter among others.
Hen welfare cannot be achieved without a proper housing system – a housing system that will allow the expression of natural behaviors, improve health status and productivity.
WHAT ABOUT BATTERY-CAGES?
Battery cages are barren wire cages used to house hens. They may range from a few cages for a small farm or live market, to many thousands of cages that may be stacked up to contain hundreds of thousands of birds. This type of housing system is associated with many welfare issues ranging from inability of hens to express normal behaviors, inability to escape aggression from other hens, and inability to perform strong instinctive behavior which causes great frustration and stress in hens. This housing system also causes pain from bone fractures and osteoporosis, development of poor bone due to excessive use of calcium for egg shell formation at the expense of structural bone, lack of sufficient floor for hens to adopt certain postures, foot and claw damage.
With these major welfare infractions, there is little wonder that many stakeholders are calling for an outright ban of battery cages, as a way of protecting and improving the welfare of hens worldwide. Farmers that currently use battery cages need to seriously consider transitioning to cage-free systems.
THE NEED TO TRANSITION FROM CAGE-SYSTEMS TO CAGE-FREE SYSTEMS.
Farmers need to understand the negative impact of the battery cages and any other systems that are cruel to hens and how it translates to the bigger picture as a One-health issue. Also, farmers need to be aware that as the world moves towards creating a better living condition for hens, cage-free transitions are already taking place globally Wattpoultry (2022), and major supermarkets and consumers are boycotting doing business with big time poultry farmers who have no consideration for welfare Chicken watch (2023). Most countries in Europe, including the UK, banned the use of battery cages in 2012. In Australia, Cage systems ban was announced in August of 2022, and its complete face-out by 2036. The ban of this intense poultry farming method -the battery cage, has also been effected in several African countries, like Kenya, Tanzania, and Ghana. It is noteworthy that advocacy for cage-free systems has gained traction in Africa with the main player on this being the Africa Network for Animal Welfare. So, it is important that farmers leverage more humane housing systems, understand how they work, and harness the potentials in them. Cage-free environments are likely to decrease the risk of disease like gout. Cage-free eggs have shown to have a healthier nutritional profile, high in Omega B-3, higher levels of protein and vitamins and less saturated fat and cholesterol.
WHICH HOUSING SYSTEMS ARE BEST FOR HENS?
The best housing systems are those that allow the expression of normal behaviors, promote health, and improve welfare and productivity of birds. Some of the key criteria used in determining a good housing system for hens include allowing for the ability to express natural behavior, ventilation, comfortable bedding or flooring for the hens, and controlled access. Good lighting and heating system, convenient to clean and easy waste disposal, grouping of chicken according to age and species, and refraining from overcrowding too constitute the key criteria for determining a good housing.
CAGE-FREE SYSTEMS AS THE BEST HOUSING SYSTEMS FOR HENS.
Any housing system that doesn’t restrict the free movement and expression of natural behaviors of hens is considered to be the best for the health, welfare, and productivity of the hens. Farmers may consider the following housing systems to optimize the productivity of their hens.
Photo Credit: Manitoba Egg farmers
A true aviary system is defined as a series of multi-tiered platforms and perches inside a barn with a cement or litter floor. Each tier allows for different activities – nesting, perching, and feeding can all be found on various levels. These platforms allow for vertical movement throughout the house and allow for greater bird stocking densities. Because these systems allow for more bird movement, hens often have improved bone strength. Birds housed in an aviary system enjoy the ability to forage, dust bathe, and perch at will.
FREE RANGE SYSTEM:
Photo Credit: Agri-farming
Free range in poultry means that the chickens are either totally unfenced or are kept in a field large enough that the fences have little effect on their movement. This is in contrast to yarding, which uses fences to confine the chickens to a smaller area than they would normally use, or confinement, which denies them any access to the outdoors.
DEEP LITTER SYSTEM:
Photo Credit: Tinau Agritech Portal
This denotes a system in which a number of hens are housed in one covered enclosure, within which they can move about freely, on a layer of straw or wood shavings several centimeters deep.
WORKING TOWARDS THE CAGE-FREE SYSTEMS
One Health and Development Initiative has made an enormous contribution to the cage-free transition. Her work has been mainly on increasing awareness among various key stakeholders on the dangers of the battery cage system, and fronting the cage-free systems in Nigeria. Not limited in scope on what we have done, the key intervention enforced to increase adoption of the cage-free system has been our Animal Welfare Radio Programme on Arewa Radio in Kano state. This programme was dedicated to chicken welfare, and the transition from the battery cage system to the cage-free systems. In a bid to have a wider influence towards transitioning to cage-free systems, we are determined to scale our radio programmes throughout other regions in Nigeria.
In conclusion, the welfare of chicken must be given the attention it deserves, because poultry farming is widely practiced. Welfare of these should be mostly recognised in the dwelling places for chicken. Welfare-elusive systems of poultry farming systems like the battery cage should be refrained from. Systems that are considerate of chicken welfare, such as the aviary systems, enriched housing system, and the free-range systems ought to be cherished in poultry farming as they are in the best interest of the wellbeing of chicken. Provided that chicken products are widely consumed by people, the environments within which chicken products are produced should be taken into great consideration.