Back to grates?
And the mandatory indoor confinement of layers has now entered its fifth month. Early March, the ministry of Economic Affairs announced that the measure will be prolonged. Even though in The Netherlands we haven’t had any more outbreaks of Avian Influenza on commercial farms since Christmas Day; in Germany, France and the United Kingdom the bird flu is still going around. Which is bad news for the Dutch free range egg producers, because indoor free range eggs are 2 to 3 cents cheaper than outdoor free range eggs. By the way, the measure doesn’t affect organic eggs. Indoor or outdoor, they remain organic.
Keeping chickens in barns - whether layers or broilers - is a topic of discussion these days. In June 2016, the Dutch institute for the environment and public health, RIVM, published a report on the effects on the health of people living in the close vicinity of a livestock farm. The study revealed both positive and negative effects. People who live around livestock farms were found to have less asthma and allergies than people who live further away. Among those living close to livestock farms, there were fewer people with COPD - a chronic lung disease. On the other hand, people who did have COPD, often had more frequent and/or more serious complications of the disease.
In addition, a link was found between poultry farms within one kilometre of a home and a slightly higher risk of pneumonia. It is unclear whether the extra instances of pneumonia in the studied area are caused by specific pathogens that originate from animals or by people becoming more susceptible to pneumonia through exposure to substances emitted by livestock farms, such as particulate matter, endotoxins and ammonia. Nevertheless, the general public clearly got the notion that ‘living close to farms is bad for your health’. And the idyllic picture of a happy family living in the countryside was suddenly overcast by a dark cloud.
New housing systems
It’s time for the poultry branch to develop new housing systems, says researcher Albert Store from Wageningen Livestock Research. Hens should no longer tread on their own manure. Poo should be removed from the stable as soon as possible. That would significantly reduce the emission of ammonia, odour, micro-organisms and particles with endotoxins instantly, because manure is the main source of those emissions. All current techniques to reduce emissions are mere patches that mitigate the problem, but don’t solve it, Storm says. He pleads for new housing systems with a combination of grates underneath the feeding and laying area in the middle and separate scratching/sun bathing paddocks on the sides.
But poultry keepers say that consumers won’t be too happy about chickens (back) on grates. They want them to be able to scratch and scrabble through the litter. So, as one layer farmer suggests: “Involve the Animal Protection Agency and Wakker Dier in the development of new housing systems. In that way, the poultry business doesn’t always have to be on the defensive”.
Ironically, the battery cage is the best housing system for the environment and the public health. But there’s no way the business will go back to the cages. So here’s a pretty big challenge for the future of the poultry business.