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Steve Walcott, vice president of sales in agricultural products for Big Dutchman USA, of Holland, Mich., says egg-laying equipment is shifting to cage-free. Food companies are promising it but so far aren't willing to pay more for it. Walcott was an exhibitor at the Midwest Poultry Federation convention and trade show, Photo taken March 14, 2017, in St. Paul, Minn. (Mikkel Pates/Agweek)

Cage-free option requires chicken agility

ST. PAUL, Minn. — A shift toward cage-free egg-laying has created challenges for egg farmers and manufacturers — as well as opportunities. And more agility training for the chickens in gymnasium-style equipment.

Steve Walcott, vice president of sales in agricultural products for Big Dutchman USA, of Holland, Mich., was one of the exhibitors at the recent Midwest Poultry Convention in St. Paul, Minn., which drew 1,000 producers and 3,000 people from several states. Minnesota typically ranks seventh or eighth among states in egg production

A push toward cage-free started in California, and the trend is likely to catch on next in the East and finally the Midwest, Walcott says.

"There are a lot of birds in the central states — a significant part of the bird population," he says.

The industry is still predominantly cage systems, but new systems are typically cage-free, even though they are more expensive and require more management and space.

Big Dutchman started in western Michigan, and the company manufactures aviary and cage systems for the egg-laying industry, as well as equipment for producing other livestock. The company is one of the top three or four companies in the U.S., Walcott says. The company continues to supply traditional cages to markets, as well as a "convertible" system, that can be converted from a traditional cage setup into a cage-free system, "if a producer doesn't know which direction they need to head immediately."

The company's "NaturaStep" setup has been on the market for several years. It includes floor space but then three tiers, at about 1.5 feet, 3 feet, and 6.5 feet. Bill Snow, a Big Dutchman aviary systems specialist for cage-free systems, says traditional systems afford hens 1 to 1.2 square feet per bird to live in, but the cage-free system is "completely open" to allow unfettered movement "lengthwise, widthwise, also vertical."

Know the jumps

The main egg-laying level is called a "nest," but includes a nubbed surface, behind a series of flaps. It is a somewhat darker environment that gives the bird a feeling of safety, he says. In it, a newly-laid egg gently rolls to the back of the nest and is collected to the front of the house. This reduces the incidents of "checks and cracks," and makes for a cleaner egg for the consumer.

"We want the bird to be able to lay her egg in the nest and nowhere else — the top level, the lower level or on the floor," Snow says. "They have the freedom to do anything, where in a cage they are confined to a 2-by-2 foot area, and that's where they're at the whole time. The egg always gets to the egg (moving) belt."

By training pullets, the laying hens have less competition for space in the laying nest.

"The less competition you can have for a particular bird, the more success she's able to have," Snow says.

Birds will naturally seek the highest level for roosting at night, based on a safety instinct. The Big Dutchman system provides either feed or water in a "drinker" on that level — but not both. "If you provide both feed and water on the highest level you have more potential for mislaid eggs. We want them to move up there, and come back down, but not lay eggs," he says.

Start in the gym

To make the new laying systems work, manufacturers also offer a "rearing system," which teaches pullets to jump.

"When they come over to the layer side, the birds can move, up and down. They know the jumps to ascend and descend," Snow says.

Tom Randall, national sales manager for Vencomatic North America, based in Barry's Bay, Ontario, says it's essential to teach poults just as it is to teach children to move.

"Let's think of this as 'Jumpstart University'" for pullets," Randall says, smiling. "The schooling part of it starts Day One, whereby we teach the chick early on to jump and perch at different levels so they know instinctively what they have to know as a layer."

Chicks initially have a short jump to get to water. As they grow, the operator changes the levels by remote control, as to allow the water to move up with their increased capabilities. Chickens have different vision and depth-perception than humans, Randall says.

"They have different perception of distance. By default, we're teaching the angles of jumps, how to perch and be secure, both going up and — really important — how to come down comfortably without hurting themselves."

All of the waterers raise up gradually, allowing the birds to learn to jump and perch in comfort and safety. As with human exercise, the activity builds up the muscle and the bone.

"Without preparing the pullet, they have no idea how to move through these systems in safety," Randall says. Another aim is to allow the poult to learn to sleep "in-system."

The market for the new equipment requires financial agility, Walcott says. Egg producers who were able to avoid contracting the avian influenza outbreaks that occurred in 2015 were also able to benefit from increased egg prices during that period. Since the avian influenza crisis, flock size has rebounded to a level that has over-supplied the egg demand, so prices have declined.

"The (equipment) customer — right now, one of their challenges is they know we have all of these commitments to go cage-free throughout the U.S. by the grocers, by the companies that use eggs as an (ingredient)," Walcott says. "All of these (food) companies have committed to cage-free, however they're not ready at this time to pay the difference of what it costs to do cage-free production."