Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Utilizing Space in a Cage-Free System

I have seen a few recent narratives in favor of cage systems that argue hens should not be given greater space allotments because, when it is given to them, they do not use it. I recently cited one of these narratives as stating...

While there were no cages, many of the hens were huddled together at one end of the hen
house; so while they had more open space, in practical terms they weren’t using any more
space than the hens in cages.

I once visited a pastured poultry broiler farm and saw the same thing. The little broiler chicks were given lots of room but didn't want the extra room. They all huddled together almost all the time, leaving most of the pasture-tent space empty. Is the same true for layers?
To assess this claim I re-visited some videos of cage-free facilities the UEP kindly sent me. Watching the videos left two impressions on me. First, there were so many hens on the floor of the facilities that there was hardly any extra space that even existed. Second, the hens were mostly uniformly scattered about the space. They did not huddle in a corner, but were comfortably walking around. Thus, these videos counter the aforementioned claim that hens do not want extra space. But then, the UEP is unlikely to film and distribute a video of cage-free hens suffocating each other in the corner of a building :) So while I am dubious of the claim that hens do not welcome and utilize extra space when given to them, I remain open-minded.
Does anyone know of a scientifically documented study of how hens use their time and space in a cage-free system? This issue interests me, and seems important.