Location: Egg and Poultry Production Safety Research Unit
Project Number: 6040-32420-003-008-R
Project Type: Reimbursable Cooperative Agreement
Start Date: Feb 1, 2022
End Date: Dec 31, 2026
Cage-free housing systems are changing constantly. Prior to May 2017, the term cage-free was not defined and establishing metrics for the laying hen industry and consumers were challenging. Cage-free is now defined: “Cage-free eggs are laid by hens that are able to roam vertically and horizontally in indoor houses, and have access to fresh food and water. Cage-free systems vary from farm-to-farm, and can include multi-tier aviaries. They must allow hens to exhibit natural behaviors and include enrichments such as scratch areas, perches and nests. Hens must have access to litter, protection from predators and be able to move in a barn in a manner that promotes bird welfare.” (United Egg Producers, 2017). Cage-free housing has continued to evolve in the past 10 years as researchers have investigated different aspects of the housing system and bird behavior, such as nesting designs, substrates for dustbathing, perch designs, and even outcomes associated with stressors (Merrill and Nicol, 2005; Struelens et al., 2005, 2008; Scholz et al., 2010). However, all of these investigations are performed in an isolated environment instead of evaluating the entire system, and not taking into account the bird’s biology and behavior. Housing systems have been designed taking to take into consideration human vision and labor, without regard for the hen’s visual system or how hens’ perception of their environment influence how they use their environment. This is a critical gap that needs to be addressed so that an optimal cage-free housing system can be developed.
A multi-disciplinary team of researchers consisting of avian physiologists, behavioral neuroendocrinologist, avian visual and behavioral ecologist, animal behavior and welfare scientist, computational biologist, and food technologist will investigate the impact light spectrum, intensity, and placement on laying hen visualization and use of their environment in both commercial and research cage-free housing settings. USDA ARS will investigate the microbial, physical, and functional quality of nest box and mislaid eggs produced under each of the experimental lighting conditions. The data generated from the commercial and experimental settings will be utilized to develop an agent-based model to improve management of cage-free flocks - ultimately resulting in safer, high quality eggs and egg products for consumers.