Saturday, September 26, 2009

Follow-Up on Hen Mortality Posting

Sara Shields recently provided a superb post on the issue of mortality in cage and cage-free systems. I have argued that cage-free systems have higher mortality rates which pose a significant welfare problem. My take is that cage-free systems are better for the bird, but the mortality problem causes me to sympathize with those who argue otherwise. So, the question is, did Dr. Shields' posting, which showed low mortality rates are possible in a cage-free system, change my mind?

I have never doubted that cage-free systems can have low mortality if cost is of no concern. One could take a cage-free facility, reduce the flock size to five birds, and would have the highest animal welfare possible, but the eggs would be thousands of dollars each. The question concerns whether low mortality is possible in a cage-free system that produces eggs at a reasonable cost. Note that I am not requiring that the cost of production be equivalent to cage eggs or even the current cage-free egg price. Let us say that my definition of "reasonable" is $5 per dozen or lower. I sought the references Dr. Shields cited to determine if any of those met this criteria.

Stonegate Organic Columbian Blacktail Eggs - At current exchange rates their free-range eggs sell for $2.91 per dozen, which is actually quite inexpensive. We know from Sara's sources that cannibalism and pecking is not a problem on the farm, but they are free-range birds and we don't know if mortality rates are affected by predators. Readers of a previous post will note that in the presence of predators mortality rates can be as high as 25%. Can mortality rates and costs be simultaneously held to a reasonably low level? The verdict for these eggs are ambiguous.

Other Farms - the other sources did list the overall mortality rate, and it was very low. However they did not list their costs or prices, so it could be they are achieving low mortality but only at very high costs. Heaven's Farm have a mortality rate under 2% while only providing the birds with 86 square inches of housing area per hen and 172 square inches of "liveable" area (which I think includes the housing area). Compared to 67 square inches per bird in a cage system and 200 square inches for bird in some cage-free systems, that's a good deal of space but not a far stretch from traditional cage-free methods.

My verdict is as follows. Dr. Shield's posting gave me greater confidence that mortality can be low in a cage-free system, especially once technology begins to address the mortality problem with greater intensity. I also have greater confidence that humane egg production is possible while keeping the price of eggs under $5.00 per dozen. However, I still have a number of questions, and do not consider my "confidence" to be "certainty."