Friday, July 24, 2015

Temple Grandin On What Concerns a Chicken

What concerns a chicken, and how do we know? Temple Grandin has a few thoughts, and she notes that what a human wants in life is not necessarily what tops the list for a chicken:
I think there are certain behavioral needs we should satisfy, and you can actually, scientifically, look at what things a hen wants the most. There are objective ways to measure [a hen's] motivation to get something she wants — like a private nest box. How long is she willing to not eat to get it, or how heavy a door will she push to get it? How many times will she push a switch to get it?

A private nest box is something she wants, because in the wild she has an instinct to hide in the bushes so that a fox doesn’t get [her eggs]. Give her some pieces of plastic to hang down that she can hide behind. Give her a little piece of astroturf to lay [her eggs] on. Give her a perch, and a piece of plastic to scratch on, and at least enough cage height so she can walk normally. I’m gonna call that apartment living for chickens. Do they need natural elements? Being outside? Science can’t answer that. I mean, there are people in New York that hardly go outside.
Colony house egg operation with egg seclusion spot

So is there a good set up for chickens?  There is!
There’s a new kind of cage design — furnished cage, enriched housing, colony housing — they’re all the same thing. The birds can walk at full height. They have a very strong urge to lay their eggs in a secluded spot, so the cage has a little nest box, a perch, and a place for them to scratch. For a large-scale commercial operation that’s probably a good alternative. Now if you raise them in loose housing without cages, you do have problems with dust — it’s hard to keep the atmosphere good. There are tradeoffs on the different systems. I think the colony house is the way to go.

One of the trade-offs, Temple Grandin notes, is cost, and she doesn't think that's insignficant.
[W]e’ve got 25 percent of people in this country working minimum wage jobs and they gotta buy the cheapest eggs they can lay their hands on. I think eggs are a necessity — beef you could say is a luxury, but not eggs.

So, to put a bottom line on it:  We can improve things for egg laying chickens so they have  a life worth living, and that can be done and still keep eggs economical.

The trick is to listen to the chickens -- they will tell you what their high-value preferences are. That includes egg-laying privacy, but not necessarily access to the outdoors or grass.


PipedreamFarm said...

Someone who purchased pristinely clean organic eggs from the market who is now standing in their kitchen making omelets day dreaming about movies showing the "good old days" when there were chickens scratching in every farm yard obviously knows what chickens want and need.

I wonder how readily they would gather and eat chicken shit smeared eggs laying under a perch or eggs from a clutch that a black snake has found and is now coiled up on? Or daily go on an egg hunt to find all the spots where real free range chickens (like in their day dream) have laid eggs knowing that somewhere there are eggs you have not found.

PBurns said...

And then there's the egg you have not found and you wonder how old it is.... Losing all the chicks to snakes and rats.... the chicken that will not come inside at night and is killed off by a predator... flies. I raised chickens as a kid and I love them, but no they are not for the prissy or the meek.

jeffrey thurston said...

When I was a kid my brother had 60 chickens. One day in July I looked out the window and it looked like it was snowing- white stuff swirling everywhere. My husky Bear had gotten off his chain and was busy killing chickens. A bloody mess.

geonni banner said...

This is a huge improvement over the 6-hens-to-a-teency-cage system. I spent a couple of my childhood years, in the late '60's, on an egg farm. Our hens had all this stuff, plus large fenced outdoor spaces, which they spent a fair amount of time in. At least 1/3 of the hens would be outdoors every day. Their choice.

Our nest boxes were made of wood, with a burlap flap. I suppose this would be more likely to attract mites. We did bug-spray the whole laying-shed down each year between when the hens were shifted out and the new pullets came in. Our birds were on a three-year schedule. One year in pullet sheds, with large individual runs for each shed. And a year in each half of a divided shed.

Yes, chickens are messy. (And a lot cleverer than people give them credit for.) But life is messy for everyone and everything that doesn't live in a bell-jar. And who wants that?

Mary Pang said...

The birds look rather happy there, as far as I can tell.

Amy Sheppard said...

I had the pleasure of visiting a caged egg facility in the UK last year which had exactly the cages as shown in the second and third pictures. There were nearly a million birds across three warehouses (staggered ages for constant supply). And I thought I would find it tough. I'm not all treehuggery but I do believe in making sure the animals are happy (as in happy in a way a cow understands it - not some human projection). It was eerie to begin with - it was alot darker with lights at the end of each cage set to allow the birds to have fully dark nest boxes. But the birds looked happy. Barely any were really pecked at - the feet were in great condition. And they were pretty calm. He had one barn that looked more threadbare but he advised they were a new breed he had been persuaded into trying and they were more aggressive with each other and no real increase in egg production. Technically they were cheaper but he said it wasn't worth it for the hassle. There were 10 chickens to a cage.

And then we went to a 'free range' facility - open barn with 16,500 chickens. Technically with access to the outside. The mortality rate is higher (the difference with the cages hens was around 5%) and the noise and panicked flapping was overwhelming. It was probably made worse by our presence but it was just a different feel. The workers confirmed that around 60 % didn't go outside and they had stopped putting food outside all the time as birds were 'guarding' the pop holes to stop other birds getting food. The stink was horredous as well - alot harder to keep clean than your cages with their poo conveyor belt taking it way every hour or so.

The bit that I find hard to feel OK about is that the birds are all killed at the end of their first laying season. It's not economically viable to have the down time for them to go through a moult. And this happens whether they are caged or free range.

So now I buy caged hen eggs as a standard and only go for the free range etc if they have a longer shelf life. Oh, and the difference between 'premium' caged hen eggs and supermarket own brand? It's just size - a machine at the facility sorts the eggs and sends them to be packed in a different box.