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Friday, September 24, 2021

UC Davis leads research for a sustainable egg supply

What came first, the chicken or the egg?

Thankfully, researchers are not attempting to answer this ancient, confounding riddle. Rather, how those hens are laying their eggs in a voter-approved facility.

A collaborative coalition formed by lead researchers from UC Davis and Michigan State, along with organizations such as McDonald’s, Cargill, American Humane Association and Center for Food Integrity have put forth initial blueprints for a study analyzing various aspects of laying hen facilities.

In an environmentally conscious climate, animal rights have become a priority. The passing of Proposition 2 on Nov. 4, 2008 in California has further fueled this attitude. Also known as the Standards for Confining Farm Animals initiative, it mainly prohibits confinement of particular farm animals in a manner that does not allow them to turn around freely, lie down, stand up and fully extend their limbs.

“The major impact of this proposition will be on laying hens and laying hen producers,” said Joy Mench, professor and director of the Center for Animal Welfare at UC Davis.

Scientists formed the study in response to the passing of Proposition 2.

“Laying hen facilities are going to be built and we are going to collect data to evaluate the health of the hen, environmental impacts, economics, safety and the quality of the eggs,” said Mench, one of the lead researchers in this study.

There will be three main types of facilities that will be created: conventional cages, aviary and enriched colony system.

Currently, 95 percent of hens in California are housed in what’s called a conventional cage. Approximately five to 10 hens are housed in a typical wire cage, Mench said.

“In conventional cages, behavior and movement of the hen is severely restricted and they cannot perform their natural behaviors such as perching, foraging or dust bathing,” said Gina Alvino, third year Ph.D. student in animal biology.

In an aviary or free-range system, a large number of hens are housed together in an enclosed barn with perches and nest boxes for egg collection.

Both types of facilities have their advantages and disadvantages in terms of hen welfare as well as environmental factors.

“Bone breakage rates due to the natural behavioral tendency of hens to pile up is known to be very high in free range systems,” said Frank Mitloehner, director of agricultural air quality center in the department of animal science at UC Davis.

Another kind of hen facility, the enriched or furnished colony system, is newly developed and widely adopted in many European countries, Mench said. The system is similar to the conventional cage but provides more space for the hen. Perches and nesting areas are provided.

“There are different main areas of hen welfare, environmental quality, worker health and safety. Within each of these categories, you have a group of scientists from across the United States working together,” Mitloehner said.

Various work groups in each part of this research study come together to exchange information and plans about the hen-housing systems.

“It’s very much a joint effort,” Mitloehner said.

Mitloehner, also an Air Quality Specialist, will analyze and compare the effects the different housing systems will have on environmental quality focusing mainly on air.

Alvino, on the other hand, is studying the impact of these housing facilities on the hens’ dust bathing behavior. This comfort behavior is seen in hens as way to keep their plumage clean.

Researchers from diverse academic and professional backgrounds are examining the unique facets and consequences of the three types of hen laying facilities.

“This research will help us understand all of the factors involved in each hen housing system, so that we can make really good, informed decisions about what we should do,” Mench said.

SRI RAMESH can be reached at campus@theaggie.org.

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