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Best practices to ensure the welfare of egg-laying hens

  • The European project ‘Best Practice Hens’ supports egg producers in the European Union in their transition to cage-free systems that ensure animal welfare.
    Within the project, a series of practical summaries on rearing and management of pullets and laying hens have just been published to help producers and technicians in this task.
  • The NEIKER technology center and Ecovalia (Spanish professional association for organic production) are the only two Spanish members of the international consortium in charge of the initiative.

Europe is one of the world’s major egg producers and one of the most advanced territories in terms of establishing alternative systems of rearing laying birds without cages, such as aviaries of one or more levels or free-range and organic systems, where birds enjoy more space and outdoors. In this sense, it also has some of the most advanced legislation in terms of animal welfare, which serves as a reference for many other countries.

However, as in so many other aspects, Europe is moving at two speeds. Thus, while in some countries all or a large part of egg production has been carried out in cage-free systems for some time, in others this transition is progressing more slowly.

In this context, the European project ‘Best Practice Hens’, which involves the technology center NEIKER, a member of the Basque Research and Technology Alliance (BRTA) and Ecovalia (Spanish professional association of organic production), seeks to help European egg producers to make the transition to cage-free systems such as aviary, free range or organic through guidance applied to best practices to ensure the welfare of pullets and laying hens. In order to provide valuable and specific information, the project, which takes into account the needs and realities of producers, focuses, but not exclusively, on the situation in Poland, Spain, Portugal and Belgium.

The egg sector is of great importance in the food production of the EU, which is self-sufficient in egg production and consumption. However, there are large differences in the housing systems for laying hens. About half of the total EU egg production comes from enriched cages, 33 % from cage-free systems of free-range aviaries, 12 % from free-range and 6 % from organic. Among the top 10 egg producers in Europe, Germany and the Netherlands stand out as countries with the highest percentage of cage-free systems, while Poland, Spain, Portugal and Belgium still have a relatively high percentage of hens in enriched cages.

Best practices

Therefore, the consortium partners have recently published a collection of practice abstracts (PA) on rearing and management of pullets and laying hens to ensure a high level of welfare during their transition to cage-free production systems. These abstracts are available in English and will soon be available in Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, Polish, German and French. The objective of these manuals is to support the transition to cage-free systems within the EU by providing examples of good practices and solutions to the main current problems in egg production.

To achieve this goal, the project brings together European experts from academia, research institutes, a non-profit organization and a veterinary company specialized in poultry management to join forces and improve the welfare of pullets and laying hens to facilitate the transition to cage-free production. The best practices compiled are not only valuable for egg producers and industries, representatives of producer associations and consultants, but also for legislators and organizations working in the field of animal welfare.

Promoting animal welfare

Furthermore, the transfer of the collected, validated and applied knowledge on the various housing systems will help European egg producers to decide on a possible switch to cage-free systems. In this regard, in the coming months, the ‘Best Practice Hens’ project will organize dissemination events for egg producers and technical advisors in Belgium, Spain, Poland and Portugal.

Within these events, open to egg producers and technical advisors, the characteristics of cage-free systems will be presented to help producers in their decision making regarding developments and changes in the market, economic aspects, environmental issues, as well as ensuring a high level of animal welfare. The final event of the project will take place in Brussels next year.

‘Best Practice Hens’ is a project funded by the European Commission with a duration of 2 years, which started in May 2021 and ends in May 2023. In addition to NEIKER and Ecovalia (Spain), the consortium consists of the project leader Utrecht University, Wageningen University and AviVet (The Netherlands); the Flanders Research Institute for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food ILVO (Belgium), Aarhus University (Denmark), the Institute of Genetics and Biotechnology of the Polish Academy of Sciences and Kipdip (Poland). In addition, FairPoultry (The Netherlands) and Kipdip (Poland) are participating as subcontractors.