Hens get state-of-the-art barn

The poultry farm on Nicholson Road, Forrestdale, has been in operation for more than 20 years.

It sells hens, fertiliser and, until recently, caged eggs only to the public.

Sales and operations manager Nigel Dinkgreve said a cage-free system was introduced to provide consumers with an additional choice to purchase barn-laid eggs.

�Free-range and barn-laid were both extensively researched to determine which system would care for the hens the best way possible,� he said.

�Barn-laid was selected as modern technology would provide far better conditions than in a free-range environment.�

Mr Dinkgreve said free-range hens could be exposed to Australia�s harsh climatic conditions and had a far greater risk of contracting diseases, including avian influenza.

He said in-breed fighting and the lack of protection from predators were also concerns when it came to free-range housing.

The new airconditioned barn system allows the hens to roam, perch and access nesting boxes.

A sunrise and sunset computerised lighting system also allows the hens to get eight hours sleep each night.

But they do not have access to the outdoors. Space-wise, there is seven chickens per square metre.

An additional 46,000 chickens at Forrestdale Farm Fresh Eggs are still housed in cages.

Mr Dinkgreve said caged hens were less expensive to look after than other forms of egg production due to a number of factors, including less chance of mortality.

�The mortality is up to three times higher in cage-free systems. Greater losses means more cost to the farmer,� he said.

He said farmers did not benefit from a lower price for caged eggs as this was passed on to the consumer.

Owner Joe Sacca believed his caged chickens were happy to live out their existence in a cage � with four to six hens per cage � as they had easy access to nutritional diet, water and were in airconditioned surroundings.

He said the chickens would not leave the cage even if they had the option and the farm followed all the legal space requirements.

Lack of official standard confuses consumers

Greens MLC Lynn MacLaren has introduced a Free Range Eggs Labelling Bill to State Government, which aims to define free-range conditions as 1500 hens per hectare, as per the CSIRO animal welfare guidelines.

It will also allow hens access to a suitable outdoor environment for a minimum of eight hours a day.

The RSPCA has established an Approved Farming Scheme for layer hens where producers can use the RSPCA logo on egg cartons only if they meet high welfare standards.

On the RSPCA website, it states the absence of a legal or even nationally agreed definition of free-range is confusing consumers.

�The egg industry proposes a cap of 20,000 birds per hectare on the range, in contrast to standards of other recognised accreditation bodies in Australia and overseas where maximums vary from 750 birds to 2500 birds per hectare. The EU legal maximum is 2500 birds per hectare. 20,000 birds per hectare does not align with consumer expectations of free-range production,� it said.

According to Murdoch University senior lecturer in animal welfare and ethics, Teresa Collins, increased sales of free-range eggs has occurred at a time when free-range labelling is not well regulated.

She said the community needed to be better informed.

�One study from the University of Bristol compared five different housing systems across 26 farms and assessed multiple production and welfare measures. They concluded that each housing system had positive and negative aspects, but overall the lowest prevalence of all problems occurred in hens in furnished cages,� she said.