The enriched cage route is the way to go, believes Devon Dykstra who is switching from broilers to layers and installing the spacious cages in the remodelled barn.
“It’s a nice balance of both worlds. The chickens have room and more natural habitat but the farmers can control the amount of feed and what goes on with the birds,” says Dykstra.
Enriched cages are now mandated as the caging system for new layer barns. Compared to conventional housing systems, the enriched cages support nesting, perching and foraging behaviours. They have extra space and waterers which creates a healthier living space.
According to the Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Pullets and Laying Hens, Egg Farmers of Canada are committing to a minimum of 85 per cent of hens to be transitioned from existing conventional cage systems to alternative housing systems that meet the new code. It is expected that 50 per cent of birds will be transitioned within eight years.
“Conventional cages are enclosures with wire mesh and sloping floors that typically house four to eight hens,” states the code. “These cages provide a controlled environment that protects hens from a range of health and injury problems. However, hens are restricted from engaging in many natural behaviours due to limited space and amenities and as a result, conventional cages have begun to be phased out in Canada.”
With new builds, or remodeling as on the Dykstra farm outside of Londesborough, farmers can start with the roomier enrichment cages.
“The whole idea of enrichment cages is that the birds will have a more natural habitat,” explains Dykstra. “Birds like to lay eggs in private so now there is a curtain and nesting area for them to lay.”
Dr. Tina Widowski, a world-renowned expert in farm animal behaviour and welfare who is also the Research Chair in Poultry Welfare at the University of Guelph, likens enrichment cages to airplane seats.
“If conventional housing is economy class, then enriched housing is business class – more amenities, more space, more comfort,” states Widowski.
Larger cages mean the chickens have more walking room, more room to stretch, to sit and to spread their wings. The addition of a scratch pad are important. “Hens in the wild scratch at the ground as they hunt for food; they are compelled to scratch and scratch pads allow them to do just that.”
Some farmers are choosing free range or hybrid housing systems that allow for even more natural behaviours but Dykstra says those system are a lot more work for the farmer.
“The hens don’t always lay in their nesting box in those systems so you are always looking for eggs. They also require a lot more management,” he says.
Dykstra still works in construction and helps his dad with cash cropping, plus he’s a family man married to Sonya (a teacher) with four young children. He wants to be able to work in the layer barn in the morning and have time for his other responsibilities the rest of the day.
The work hours for layers versus broilers is part of the reason Dykstra decided to remodel the broiler barn into a layer barn. The broiler industry is seeing many changes as well. Among them is the move to modular loading systems, something the existing barn did not support. Plus Dykstra’s parents’ layer barns were at capacity and there was a need for a new facility to expand. With all these issues, it made sense to switch to layers.
Dykstra investigated several enrichment cage options before choosing Tecno cages, an enrichment cage system designed in Italy and sold by Clark Ag Systems, a poultry system supplier based in Caledonia, Ontario.
“I looked at cage quality, ease of use and advancements and I really liked the Tecno cage,” says Dykstra. “Plus, when I talked with Tecno and Clark Ag, I felt they were very supportive of the farmer by being quick to help and tweak the installation to make it better.”
The Tecno cages have a unique design with perches being placed horizontally instead of vertically in the cages. He thinks this works well for the birds to manouevre and reach the drinkers and feeders. Also, the in-cage lighting makes it brighter in the centre of the cage where the scratching pads are located but darker over the nesting area, creating privacy for the hens to lay eggs.
Clark Ag Systems has an installer who helps supervise the process and will also supply crews for the actual work of building the cages. However, Dykstra decided to hire casual workers and students from the neighbourhood.
“For me, it was important to have familiarity with the people and be able to give high school students a summer job,” explains Dykstra. Some days he had nine workers and other days a handful, but it has worked out “very well” despite some hiccups in the process, including COVID-19. Every industry was affected by the coronavirus pandemic and it created some timing issues for the installation. However, the barn will be ready by October when the first birds arrive. The barn has capacity for 15,000 layer hens.
At the time of this article, the barn was really taking shape. The feed trolley system (versus chain feeders) was installed along with the perches, scratch pads and curtains creating the private area for chickens to lay eggs. Each cage will house 76 birds (38 birds on each side) giving each hen 116 square inches of space.
The packing room still has to be completed with a used Diamond 100 case packer that is a little large for the operation but was “priced right” from a local farmer he trusts.
The packing room is spacious, built high for ease of loading the five-and-half-foot high stacks of pallets into the loading truck. The room will also be handy when the kids help Devon and Sonya in the barn, giving them space to play and run around.
“You never complain about too much room,” says Dykstra.
He’s very much looking forward to raising birds in the new enrichment cages, saying the industry as a whole feeds birds all they need to stay healthy to produce a “good, quality egg.”
In terms of the hens, he says the birds coming out of enrichment cages look “just as good” going out as they came in. In conventional cage system, the birds are sometimes rough-looking from their closer quarters. He believe the hens will be “comfortable and calmer” in the new system. ◊