images of hundreds of chicken in cages, crammed with no space to move, grown to produce more and more eggs. To say the least, these are unpleasant images that have rightly raised animal welfare as well as health and environmental concerns. But how did we end up here in the first place? In other words, what are the advantages that led to the development of intensive poultry farming and based on our knowledge today, why should other methods be preferred for this type of farming.
According to data, 74% of the world’s poultry meat and 68% of eggs are produced in ways that are described as ‘intensive’¹. Some of the intensive farming techniques have been borne out of an economic imperative. For example, hens begin laying eggs at 16–20 weeks of age, but production starts declining as of 25 weeks of age. So in many countries, at 72 weeks of age, these hens are considered economically unviable and are slaughtered around the one-year mark of egg production¹.
One key method of intensive poultry farming is using conventional battery cages for laying hens. Out of over 5 billion laying hens in the world, most live in battery cages which offer each hen less space than an A4 page².
One of the major advantages of intensive farming is that it provides a high yield. This means that key food items such as eggs and chicken can be offered at competitive prices which are affordable to all³.
What is more, battery cages are designed to minimise the need for space and for labour which can help reduce costs. They achieve this by using mesh as the floor of the cages which allows the faeces to drop down limiting the need for clean up each cage. The eggs are collected with a conveyor belt from the cages while food is provided in front of the hens through a bisected metal or plastic pipe and water by using overhead nipple systems⁴,⁵.
But despite its clear advantages in terms of profitability and affordability, the batter cage system and similar intensive farming techniques also come with disadvantages. It is indicative that the EU has banned conventional battery cages for laying hens, while some countries are already considering banning a development of this cage system called “enriched” or “modified” cages which were developed to address some of the animal welfare concerns that had been raised with the original battery cages¹.
Most notably, chickens and hens in intensive poultry farming often suffer from different conditions and pain. A lot of intensively reared chickens suffer from lameness as a result of fast growth, a result of selective breeding and concentrated feed. In addition, the way the cages are designed and as the chickens grow, their droppings accumulate on the floor. When the droppings decompose, ammonia is released. The ammonia then fills the air with unhealthy fumes and this puts chickens at risk of incurring painful blisters, hock burns or ulcerated feet².