Frankenstein in the hen house – part one: “Creation of the Monster”. 

There should be little discussion about ensuring optimal animal welfare outcomes for all farm (and every other kind!) animals, with “free-range” or “pastured” producers seen as the ambassadors and advocates of this imperative. However, few people, whether producers or consumers, realise that the odds are stacked heavily against the achievement of this goal, due to the genetics of the animals they use. Nowhere is this more clearly demonstrated than in the production of “pastured” poultry products in Australia.

When I became involved with poultry nearly 50 years ago, there was little public interest in animal welfare beyond universal condemnation of outright and obvious cruelty. Eggs were produced under the auspices of the state “egg boards”, that were established to assist the large number of small producers with marketing their eggs. Egg farms were generally profitable enterprises, with a mixture of semi-intensive (what we would describe as “free range” today) and cage producers in existence in the mid ‘60’s. The laying hens they used were developed by Australian breeding companies and various government departments, and were normally a cross between a White Leghorn and either Australorp or New Hampshire. These birds could be relied upon to produce over 250 eggs per year under good management. As time progressed, more and more farms converted or established as cage facilities, and semi-intensive systems gradually disappeared. A similar pattern unfolded across all developed nations of the world.

Fast forward to the ‘90’s, and the vast majority of the worlds laying hens are housed in cages. Deregulation of the egg market, coupled with the growth of the large supermarket chains meant that smaller producers were being forced out of the industry by the large, corporate organisations that operated on a massive scale with narrow margins. In this highly competitive market, the emphasis is always on efficiency, and producers demanded laying birds that could deliver the maximum number of eggs in the shortest period of time with a minimal amount of feed. With these parameters as a major driver, the companies breeding laying birds for distribution around the world focused heavily on achieving these goals and did so with phenomenal success. By the year 2000 laying hens had the genetic potential to lay more than 300 eggs in a year, and this number is closer to 340 or more in 2018. It was during this period that the Australian birds disappeared, and virtually all laying hens in this country originate from a very small number of breeding companies overseas.

With the advent of the internet and the subsequent access to information, consumers became more aware of the various production systems, and the “non-intensive” industry was re-born. People now demanded that their eggs or chicken came from birds that were not housed in cages, but were able to move around freely, preferably with an outdoor range. With this demand came the rapid expansion of the “free-range” and “pastured” sectors, and it is at this point that this disturbing and largely untold horror story begins.

It took nearly 60 years for the international egg industry to reach its current levels of sophistication and efficiency, with incredible advances in nutrition, housing and especially genetics. The billions of birds housed in cages around the world bear little resemblance to the birds of 60 years ago, a fact that is equally true here in Australia. However, once demand for eggs produced outside cages increased, the birds bred for caged egg production were simply placed in a free-range environment and were expected to perform the same as they would in a cage. This of  course was and is completely unrealistic, and as a result problems with feather pecking, cannibalism and poor egg production started to plague free range and pastured egg operations. There has been thousands of hours, millions of dollars and countless papers written by academics researching this phenomenon, yet the situation remains largely unchanged, with the exception of a few superficial solutions employed, such as beak trimming and behavioural distractions or “toys”.

What I find completely astounding is the fact that very few of those involved in the industry acknowledge the fact that it has taken over 60 years of intense genetic selection and refinement to produce the modern laying hen, all of which was focused exclusively on the caged egg industry, without any consideration for non-intensive systems. It is only recently that breeding companies have acknowledged the problems facing alternative production systems and are now working on strains better adapted to these systems.

So, what does this mean for free range and pastured egg producers in Australia today? In my opinion, it is critical that they understand the raw materials they are working with and develop their production strategies and budgets recognising the various inherent limitations of these modern laying birds.

To begin with, it is essential to understand the sophistication and scale of modern poultry breeding companies. Whether it be for layers or meat birds, the international market for commercial poultry genetic material is controlled by a small number of very large companies. These companies have invested billions of dollars in developing their facilities and employ cutting edge technologies to optimise the performance of their birds.  There can be no doubt about the magnitude of their achievements and the changes wrought in the birds they produce. However, it is equally important to acknowledge that with genetic refinement or “selection” there must necessarily be a loss of genetic information. Remember these two important facts: the genome of the domestic chicken is fixed and can only be altered by genetic engineering; and that all domestic poultry are descended from the jungle fowl, a relatively small bird native to south-east Asia. These birds weigh about 1kg, and normally lay around 20 eggs per year. Compare this with the modern-day layer at 340+ eggs per year. To distil all of this information into one simple sentence, please consider the following statement that I quote regularly:

“Modern laying hens are little more than a life-support system for a reproductive tract”.

Therefore, all the productive performance that has been achieved with modern commercial poultry has been through the isolation and magnification of specific characteristics, at the expense of an unknown number of genetic characteristics or “traits”, potentially including critical physiological, behavioural or metabolic functions such as immune response or nesting behaviour. To illustrate this point, take the example of the single combs of modern layers. The comb of a hen performs a few roles, as a sexual characteristic and a “radiator” for dispelling heat to name two. However, there are many different types of combs in the chicken genome, with the single comb being a “recessive” characteristic. Therefore, the breeding companies had to ensure that they removed all other comb types from their breeding programme to ensure their birds possessed only single combs. This is a simple and non-critical example and is representative of the process of selection used in livestock breeding practices.

layers in paddock at sunset

So, how does all of this impact modern day layers, and what are the implications for free range and pastured egg producers? In the second of this three-part series, we will explore how these highly selected strains are affected by “non-cage” production environments, and how this is expressed in the behaviour, performance and physiology of the birds.