CAGE FREE LAYERS – FROM A DANISH POINT OF VIEW
History – Figures from 2017
In Denmark for the last five to six years,
we have seen a change in the demand for
table eggs – shifting from more than 50%
of eggs coming from enriched cages to
more and more eggs coming from alternative
housing systems. Eggs from barn
and organic production, in particular,
have increased to the detriment of eggs
from cage systems. This development is
likely to continue and will be driven by
the supermarket ban on selling table eggs
from enriched cages from 2017/2018.
Many years of experience and excellent
management, especially in organic
production, show that today’s breeds are
all very efficient and can be adapted to
the housing system – no matter whether
it is a house for cage layers or organic production.
The pullets and hens need to be
“trained” for each housing system.
Beak trimming facts – history of
How to manage a “perfect” performance!
- Until 2013, all laying hens for enriched
cages, barn and free-range production
were debeaked. (beak trimming
was performed on day-old chickens at
- From 2013, beak trimming was banned
for enriched cages. In addition,
one year later – from 1 July 2014 –
beak trimming of day-old chicks for
alternative egg production systems
was also prohibited.
- Hens for organic production have never
been beak trimmed in Denmark!
Since 2003, pullets for organic production
have been raised in organic
systems and welfare screening was
introduced by the authorities.
In accordance with animal welfare and efficiency,
we all want our hens to perform
well – no matter whether they are kept in
enriched cages or in alternative housing
systems. Healthy birds with a good feather
cover and the “right shape” are essential for
animal welfare as well as high egg numbers,
correct feed consumption and good
egg quality etc. Laying hens in “good shape”
are calm and curious.
shows an example of efficiency
data from an organic flock that reports
data to the Danish efficiency control programme
according to the hen’s age in
weeks (hen age is at the bottom of the fig):
The figure shows high efficiency – due to:
- low mortality/high livability (red)
- very high egg yield (dark blue)
- development in egg weight (light
blue) and high number of eggs in
class M and L shown on the green line
(highest egg price),
- low feed consumption (pink)
- low number of downgrades from
packing station (brown)
The flock ends up at 79 weeks of age with
a total egg number of 374 eggs per hen
housed and an FCR at 128 g feed per pc
egg, or 2.15 kg feed per kg egg mass.
The curves in the figure show a persistent
and consistent flock!
This farmer has often delivered fine
production results. This is not due to luck
but to hard work and excellent management!
The farmer is systematic in his daily
work and very regularly in inspection and
stimulation (silage, oyster shells etc).
Figure 1. The images are from organic and barn production
Debeaked versus non-debeaked hens
Non-debeaked hens in enriched cages did
not show any difference in behaviour, efficiency
etc. compared with debeaked hens in
enriched cages. Consequently, no aspect of
management practice needed to be changed.
Possibly due to this, to a greater or lesser
degree, we did not make any changes
in the rearing, transfer and feeding strategy
when beak trimming was banned in alternative
housing systems. This was a mistake!
In the first years following the ban,
we faced many challenges in managing
non-debeaked hens. Many flocks became
stressed from the beginning of lay and
started feather pecking. This often led to
higher mortality, lower egg numbers, increased
feed consumption and poor egg
quality due to the lack of feathers.
Fig 3 Pictures of some of the first flocks
after the beak trimming ban showing
stressed and feather pecked hens
Figure 2. Example of efficiency data from an organic flock
Experiences from Sweden and organic
farming and in Denmark
Experience from organic egg production
in Denmark and from barn production in
Sweden on good management of alternative
flocks with non-debeaked hens has
clarified important management tools.
Lots of work and a focus on management
factors during the last few years have
made things better, but there is still room
Some important key factors on how
to manage a flock – whether it is an organic
flock or a barn or free-range production
system seem to be clear. In general,
one can claim that compared with cage
housing systems, free roaming hens need
a quick response in management!
Important key factors for success in
One of the most important key factors
(some will claim that it is the most important!)
is rearing process, and thereby, the
quality of the pullets! Quality means that
the pullets should have been reared under
the same conditions as in the laying
house – they should be well developed
and trained to jump and grip the perches
and should have learned to sleep in the
system. In addition, a pullet must have
achieved the recommended bodyweight
It takes time to raise a flock of pullets
well– which applies to all systems: barn,
free-range or organic! A focus on every single
stage in the life of the pullet is needed –
from day-old chick until transfer to the hen
house – following the recommendations
from the breeding company and using
our experience and “gut-feelings”. Management
can be difficult to define, but if rearer
farmers want to apply good management
practice and intervene before anything
goes wrong, they must spend time inside
the house observing the birds! The farmer
must check the chickens or pullets at least
twice a day. Besides enabling a quick response,
the birds will also be calmer if they
get used to people inside the house.
Experience leads to a statement
and conclusion in my opinion: You
can get your pullets or layers to do
almost whatever you want them
to and they can get used to almost
every type of environment, equipment,
noise etc.: They just need to
Figure 3. First flocks after the beak trimming ban
I think this explains why we are quite successful
with organic egg production in
Denmark. The pullets are accustomed to a
variety of different factors during the day
from when they are young chickens such
as changes in sunlight, roughage, outdoor
area, noises etc. This makes them calmer
and more robust.
As an example of how you can “train”
your pullets, the following picture from
an organic pullet rearing farm shows that
many birds will use the outdoor area if
they are used to it. At the time, the pullets
were about 15 weeks of age and the farmer
had opened the pop holes 3 minutes
before the photo was taken!
As mentioned before, every organic
hen in Denmark is raised using organic
methods: meaning they have access to an
outdoor area from 6-9 weeks of age (depending
on time of the year). It shows the
effect of devoting a lot of time to managing!
It is difficult to define but easy to see
the positive results of good management!
The flock shown in the efficiency curves
in figure 2 was actually raised at this farm,
which simply emphasizes the value of pullets
of excellent quality.
Figure 4. Organic pullet rearing farm
How to avoid undesirable bad behaviour
Factors of great importance on animal
welfare and production:
- Pullet quality: good quality is one
of the key factors for success in egg
- Feed and feed management.
Chickens, pullets and hens may feel
confident at any way and they must
have fulfilled their nutrient need at all
stages in their lives.
- Enrichment tools during the day:
access to e.g. alfalfa balls, pecking
stones, silage/roughage, straw
- An attractive outdoor area if hens are
organic or free-range provides diversion
and reduces stocking density
inside the house
- Right climate and temperature: low
levels of ammonia and the correct
temperature give better air quality.
- Frequently inspect the flock for the
presence of worms and red mites, as
parasites cause high stress levels
Other factors can also greatly influence
the behaviour and the welfare of the hens.
To secure high animal welfare and
good performance, accounting for
these factors is vital in the period
from one day-old until slaughter.
Charlotte Frantzen Bjerg, Adviser, DLG/