Layer Hens

Welfare standards for the layer industry

Requirements for the egg industry in the 2001 welfare code

In August 2000, ARMCANZ (Agriculture and Resource Management Council of Australia and New Zealand) made decisions on layer cage housing which were incorporated into the Model Code of Practice for the Welfare of Animals – Domestic Poultry 4th Edition (2001) (2001 Code).

To enable implementation of the 2001 Code in each State or Territory supporting legislation is required to be put in place by each State Government.

Parts or all of the 2001 Code may be regulated in each State or Territory or else it is made a requirement that poultry farms comply with the 2001 Code.

The relevant State or Territory government departments will either use their own Animal Welfare Inspectors or RSPCA inspectors to check on compliance with the jurisdictions of the Animal Cruelty Legislation. How the 2001 Code is dealt with in State and Territory legislation varies between jurisdictions. If a person is charged with an offence they are able to use the 2001 code to demonstrate how they are complying with the requirements.

In the 2001 Code, there are requirements which apply to all egg farms and must be met irrespective of the production system. The following are the requirements of the 2001 code for egg producers. Information below has been taken directly from the 2001 code document. Note that where the word “must” is used the farmer must comply, whereas “should” is taken as recommended that he comply.

Definitions of production systems

The 2001 Code provides a definition for each production system used in Australia.

Cage systems

Birds in cage systems are continuously housed in cages within a shed.

Barn systems (non cage systems)

Birds in barn systems are free to roam within a shed which may have more than one level. The floor may be based on litter and/or other material such as slats or wire mesh.

Free range systems (non cage systems)

Birds in free range systems are housed in sheds and have access to an outdoor range.

General Requirements

These requirements apply to all production systems.

Advice on welfare aspects must be sought when new cages or equipment are being purchased, new buildings being constructed or existing buildings modified.

All equipment to which poultry have access must be designed and maintained to avoid injury or pain to birds.

Floors, other surfaces, fittings and equipment must be designed, constructed and maintained so as to minimise the risk of injury and disease, and to adequately support the birds.

Poultry should be protected from extreme weather conditions including draughts in cold weather.

Innovative husbandry and housing systems, which enhance bird welfare, should be encouraged, and applied to commercial egg production as practical.

Checking of birds

The frequency and level of inspection should be appropriate to the welfare risk of the birds, but a thorough welfare inspection must be performed at least once each day. Young birds in brooders should be inspected at least twice every 24 hours and action taken to correct deficiencies in husbandry.

At these inspections the following areas require thorough attention – bird health, injury, behaviours indicative of a problem, feed, water, ventilation and lighting.

  • All feeding and watering systems must be checked for efficient operation at least once each day to ensure all birds have access to feed and water.
  • Where birds are found to be entrapped they must be freed (from entrapment) immediately and where appropriate, corrective action taken to prevent this situation recurring.
  • Dead and injured birds should be removed for disposal or appropriate treatment without delay. Dead birds must be removed and disposed of promptly and hygienically.

Poultry must also be checked regularly for signs of infectious disease and appropriate action taken promptly. Poultry should be checked regularly for evidence of parasites and effective treatment should be instituted.

Birds with an incurable sickness or significant deformity should be removed from the flock and humanely destroyed as soon as possible.

Neck dislocation is an acceptable method of humane destruction provided it is carried out competently.

Records of morbidities, mortalities, treatment given and response to treatment must be maintained to assist disease investigations.

Medication must be used only in accordance with the manufacturer’s instructions unless professional advice has been given to vary the directions.

During inspection of poultry, the light intensity on the birds must be adequate to allow birds to be thoroughly inspected and any problems identified. During inspection of poultry, the light intensity may need to be supplemented (eg. by use of a torch or by turning up the overall lighting in the shed).

Feed supply

Sufficient feed and facilities should be available so all birds receive adequate nutrition for even growth and lack of obvious competition.

Newly hatched birds must be provided with food within 60 hours of hatching.

Poultry, other than newly hatched birds, must have access to food at least once in each 24 hour period. The complete withholding of food for longer periods is not acceptable except in the case of layer pullets, where “skip-a-day” feeding is an acceptable industry practice for maintaining bird health and productivity.

Poultry must receive a diet containing adequate nutrients to meet their requirements for good health and vitality. Poultry must not be provided with food that is deleterious to their health.

When using mechanical feeding systems of delivery of food, alternative methods of feeding should be available. There should be enough food on hand, or ready means of obtaining food, in the event of failure of supply.

Water

Poultry must have access to sufficient potable water to meet their physiological requirements. Water must be provided which is not deleterious to health.

Measures must be taken to ensure poultry, other than those newly hatched, are not deprived of water for more than 24 hours. Newly hatched birds require water within 60 hours. Lesser periods apply during hot weather.

Water should be cool in summer, and maintained below a temperature at which birds refuse to drink.

Each bird must have access to at least two independent drinking points. The splash cup under a nipple drinker is not an independent drinking point.

The number of drinking points/drinking space provided per bird must be such that competition does not result, leading to water deprivation of some individuals in the flock, while at the same time not being so excessive as to lead to water wastage, with consequential detrimental impacts on overall shed environment.

The manufacturer’s recommendation on the number of birds per drinker should be used as a guide.

Shed climate and Ventilation

Ventilation is required at all times to provide fresh air and is one means of controlling shed temperature and humidity. The accumulation of water vapour, heat, noxious gases and dust particles may cause discomfort or distress and predispose to the development of disease.

A level of 10 – 15 ppm of ammonia in the air can be detected by smell and once reached corrective action should be taken. If ammonia levels reach, 20 ppm at bird level in enclosed buildings immediate corrective action must be taken. Ammonia levels of 25 – 35 ppm will cause eye and nasal irritation in humans.

Newly hatched birds have a poor ability to control body temperature and require supplementary heat to bring their environmental temperature up to the comfort range as evidenced by alert and active behaviour. Optimum temperatures vary for different species and operators must know and adhere to the specific requirements for the species under their care.

Subject to seasonal variations supplementary heat at gradually reducing levels may be required up to 5 weeks of age. The behaviour of the birds is the best indicator of discomfort if sufficient or excessive heat is being provided.

In hot weather, provision of adequate cool water and ventilation is essential and birds must have access to shade.

Under adverse weather conditions, birds must be monitored more frequently.

Where high temperatures are causing distress, foggers, roof sprinklers, fans or other systems should be used to control heat build-up within buildings. Foggers are less effective if relative humidity reaches 80% and temperature rises above 30oC.

To prevent birds from overheating in hot weather space must be available to facilitate body heat loss, such as panting, vibrating the floor of the mouth cavity (‘gular flutter’) standing erect with wings held away from the body and raising of the scapular feathers.

In the case of layers and where no mechanical ventilation is provided, if the conditions are such or likely that the liveability and welfare of the birds is or would be adversely affected, then the facility must be upgraded to provide mechanical ventilation and cooling.

Temperature and humidity must be measured and recorded when appropriate.

Backup Power and Alarms

Mechanically ventilated sheds must have a backup power supply or alternative equivalent ventilation system and automatic alarm systems that warn immediately of power or temperature problems.

All automated environmental control equipment for controlled environment sheds must have adequate back-up systems and alarms in case of equipment failure.

The alarm system must have battery backup and must operate on a system independent of the shed ventilation, heating and cooling controller and temperature sensors.

The alarm system must sense if the shed temperature is too high or too low and if there is a power failure in any power supply phase. Alarms must be sited so that they are easily heard and response to them must be available at all times with restoration of power or emergency ventilation within 15 minutes.

Protection

Poultry accommodation should be sited to be safe from the effects of fires and floods.

Adequate fire fighting equipment including alarms should be available to control a fire in any part of a poultry house. Alarms should be situated outside the poultry shed to prevent bird panic. Response to alarms must be available at all times.

If flooding occurs in litter sheds, where practical the wet litter should be replaced with dry.

When planning new buildings, consideration should be given to the use of construction materials with a high fire resistance, and all electrical and fuel installations should be planned and fitted to minimise the fire risk.

Sufficient exits should be accessible, especially in new buildings, to facilitate the evacuation of birds from the building in an emergency.

Beak Trimming

Beak trimming must be performed only by an accredited operator or under the direct supervision of an accredited trainer as part of an accreditation training program and must be performed only in accordance with agreed accreditation standards.

Lighting

Young birds reared away from the hen require a light intensity of about 20 lux on the food and water for the first three days after hatching in order to learn to find food and water. It may then be reduced to as low as 2 lux during rearing.

Sudden increases in light should be avoided as it may cause flight reactions on some strains of birds.

Where poultry do not have access to daylight they should be given lighting over a total period of at least 8 hours per day. Photoperiods in excess of 20 hours per day may be detrimental to the adult laying bird.

All enterprises must have access to equipment to measure light intensities and must keep appropriate records.

Moult Inducement and Controlled Feeding

Moult inducement or controlled feeding practices should be carried out only on healthy birds under close management supervision and under conditions that will not cause cold stress.

Methods of moult inducement and controlled feeding which totally deprive birds of food or water for more than 24 hours must not be used.

Diets that the birds will not eat must not be used. Substitution of a high fibre diet, for example, whole barley or oats is acceptable provided birds eat 40 – 60 grams per day.

Electric Fencing

Wires to deter birds from perching over feed or water containers or to prevent egg pecking must be live only for necessary training periods.

Electric wires should not be used to control feeding.

Blinkers

Blinkers should be applied by a competent operator and those which damage the nasal septum must not be used.

Blinkers are not to be used in caged birds as they get caught on the wire and interfere with the bird eating and drinking.

Blinkers which may injure the bird if they become entangled must not be used.

Blinkers must not be applied to poultry unless any nest boxes provided are situated only at ground level.

Contact lenses must not be used in poultry as they cause eye irritation and infections and abnormal behaviour.

Sale or Disposal of birds

Food and water must not be withheld from birds for more than 24 hours during the entire sale process including transport to and from the place of sale.

Birds must not be held inside a vehicle under conditions when the temperature may exceed 33°C.

Birds must not be carried or held in the boot of a car.

Poultry Awaiting Slaughter

Care must be exercised to ensure that poultry are not subjected to unnecessary stress while awaiting slaughter.

Birds must be slaughtered in a manner which minimises handling and stress. Acceptable slaughter methods include neck dislocation, decapitation or electrical stunning followed by bleeding out.

Caged Layer Requirements

Cages housing laying poultry are required to comply with requirements in the 2001 Code.

Door opening

The design and size of cage openings must be such that birds can be placed in them or removed from them without causing them injury or unnecessary suffering. Cages must have doors the full height and width of the cage front. Since 1995, larger cages have been introduced and their doors must open either to the full width or to a width of 50cm or 19.7”.

Floor construction

The floor must be constructed to provide support for each forward pointing toe.

As a guide to farmers on how to apply this requirement the AEIA provided the following information in 1995;

Is the distance between the widest spaced cage floor support wires within the cage area equal to or less than 5.1cm or 2 inches?

Cage design and arrangement

Multi tiered cages must be arranged so that:

  • birds in the lower tiers are protected from excreta from above, and
  • all birds are fully visible for regular inspection and individual birds can be easily removed from cages as required.

Cage height

Birds must be able to stand at normal height in cages. Cages must be at least higher than the maximum height of the birds standing normally.

The height of all cages must be at least 40cm or 15.75” over 65 percent of the cage floor area and not less than 35cm or 13.75” at any point.

Feeder and drinker

Not less than 10cm or 3.9″ of feed trough must be provided per bird.

Not less than 10cm or 3.9″ of water trough per hen or no fewer than two independent nipple or cup drinkers must be provided within reach of each cage. The splash cup under a nipple drinker is not an independent drinking point.

Floor slope

The slope of the floor should not exceed 8 degrees. This is equivalent to 14mm fall in 100mm or 1.7” fall in 12” of cage depth.

Stocking density

The following stocking densities are for cages holding 3 or more birds and each bird weighing less than 2.4kg. This applies to 99% of cages in Australia. There are some single and two bird cages on research facilities.

All cages commissioned or installed after the prescribed date must provide a minimum floor space allowance of 550 cm2 per bird. The prescribed date varies between States.

All cages commissioned or installed before the prescribed date must provide a minimum floor space allowance of 450 cm2 per bird. This does not apply in the ACT. In other jurisdictions to date, it applies for the life of the cage of 20 years except for Victoria where it applies until 1 January 2015. The 20 years life commences at the date of installation or commissioning of the cage.

The prescribed date varies between jurisdictions

Tasmania 1 January 2001 (commissioned)
Queensland 1 January 2003 (must be commissioned before 1 January 2001)
Victoria 1 January 2007
Australian Capital Territory 1 January 2008 (all cages must be stocked at 550 cm2 per bird, Does not allow any cages to be stocked at 450 cm2 per bird after this date)

Daily checking of birds

The daily inspection of poultry in cages must specifically include checking for entrapment and checking of the manure areas under cages for escaped birds.

Where birds are found to have escaped into the manure area under cages, they must be captured as soon as practicable on the day of observation and returned to cages or destroyed humanely.

Where cages are installed in multiple tiers, it must be possible to inspect birds in all tiers easily and routinely

Equipment must be available to allow inspection and handling of birds in all levels of cages.

Chickens and Pullets Reared In Cages

Where chickens are brooded on wire it is recommended that temporary supportive flooring material, such as paper or matting, is provided during the early brooding period.

The floor must be constructed to provide support for each forward pointing toe.

The maximum acceptable live weight density for rearing pullets in cages is 40 kg live body weight per m2 of cage floor area.

Barn, Deep Litter, Aviary and Free Range

There are requirements for poultry housed or reared on litter floored sheds, barn sheds and sheds on free range facilities.

Litter

Where litter floors are used, the management of the litter is critical for the welfare of the birds.

The floor substrate in indoor floor systems may consist of litter and/or slatted flooring, or wire flooring or any combination of these. Litter is used by poultry to dust, bathe and forage and the provision of some litter area is encouraged.

In deciding, what depth of litter to use consideration must be given to the stocking density of the birds and length of time in the shed. Poor litter management may lead to litter that is caked, wet or excessively dusty, and attempts must be made to prevent these conditions and rectify them should they occur.

Slatted Floors

Where slatted floor systems are used, the design of the slats should be such that the slats adequately support the birds, while achieving a balance between manure removal and damage to the feet and legs of the birds. In this respect, the gaps between the slats should not exceed 25 mm, and the size of the slats should take into consideration the type of bird.

Nests

Laying hens must be provided with at least 1 single bird nest per 7 hens or, for colony (multiple bird) nests, at least 1 m2 of nest box area per 120 hens.

Nests must provide seclusion from the flock, be designed and have a floor substrate that encourages nesting behaviour.

Nest boxes should be easily accessible and should not be so high above the floor level that birds may be easily injured when ascending of descending.

Nest litter, where used, should be kept clean, dry, friable and moisture absorbent. Nest liners should be kept clean and dry.

The construction and positioning of nest boxes should be such that they do not become heat traps.

Rearing experience plays an important role in ensuring that eggs are laid in the nests provided. A high incidence of ‘floor eggs’, that is eggs laid outside the nests may indicate failure to meet the above conditions or the need for husbandry changes, in which case corrective action should be taken.

Feeder and drinker space

For poultry in non cage systems, there is a range of feeder types in use, and manufacturer’s recommendations should be referred to in this respect and not exceeded. For pullet rearing and adult layers a maximum of 100 birds per pan feeder, and a minimum of 2 cm per bird of feed trough or flat chain feeder is recommended. Note that both sides of the trough are considered as available for the birds to feed from. (i.e. 1 metre of trough provides 2 metres of feeding space.)

The maximum recommended water space in non cage systems for pullet rearing and adult layers is 120 birds per bell drinker or 20 birds per nipple. For birds during brooding, the maximum recommendation is 40 chickens per nipple.

Pullet Rearing

Layer pullets may be reared on wire, slats or litter. For properties where litter rearing is used and enteric infections or vaccination efficacy are a problem chickens may be brooded on wire for the first 3 – 4 weeks, and then transferred to litter.

Floor area – Stocking Density

The maximum stocking density for non caged layers or pullets at 16 weeks age is 30 kg per m2 of floor space. The maximum densities may only be used if there are cooling systems and ventilation fans in place to ensure control during extreme conditions. Lower densities should be targeted. When planning bird replacements producers must take into account prevailing seasonal conditions. These stocking densities apply to the indoor sheds on free range facilities also. Usable floor area may include any slatted or metal mesh area and any area occupied by feeding and watering equipment and nest boxes, on one or more levels provided that:

  • each level is easily accessible to the hens;
  • headroom between the levels is at least 45 cm;
  • all levels are accessible to stock workers to observe and reach birds which are sick or injured;
  • feeding and watering facilities are distributed to provide equal and ready access to all hens; and
  • levels are sited so as not to foul birds below.

Perches

Provision of adequate perching space is encouraged for pullets and laying hens and can be provided as linear perches or slatted or wire mesh floors. If perches are provided all birds should have the opportunity to roost if that is their preference.

Available linear perches should allow not less than 15 cm per hen. Perches must be without sharp edges, and must be positioned to minimise fouling of any birds below. The horizontal distance between the perches should be at least 30 cm but not more than 1 metre, and the horizontal distance between perch and the wall should be at least 20 cm.

Slatted or wire mesh perching areas should provide a minimum of 450 cm2 per bird.

Roosting areas should be easily accessible and should not be so high above the floor level that birds may be easily injured when ascending of descending.

Free Range

These requirements apply specifically to free range systems.

The housing facilities of free-range hens must be designed to ensure adequate airflow and temperature control at maximum stocking densities when birds cluster or perch at night or during extreme weather conditions.

Adequate feed must be supplied in the feeding systems of free-range sheds taking into account the level of nutrients available in the range area.

Maximum acceptable live weight stocking densities for indoor areas on free range farms are as in the Barn and Free Range section above.

All birds when fully feathered must have ready access through openings to the outdoor range during daylight hours for a minimum of 8 hours per day. The only exception is under adverse weather conditions or serious outbreaks of disease when birds may be kept inside.

Openings should be of a size and number and be evenly distributed to allow easy entry and exit for the birds with no impediments. As a guide, openings should be a minimum 35 cm high and 40 cm wide with 2 metres per 1,000 birds taking into account the climatic conditions.

For the outdoor range, the maximum stocking density for layer hens is a maximum of 1500 birds per hectare. This must not be exceeded. Any higher bird density is acceptable only where regular rotation of birds onto fresh range areas occurs and close management is undertaken, which provides some continuing fodder cover.

The outdoor range area should be sited and managed to avoid muddy or unsuitable conditions. If such conditions develop, an alternate area should be provided or remedial action undertaken to rectify the problem. The stocking density or rotational program for future flocks should be adjusted to prevent a recurrence of such situations.

Poultry should not be kept on land which has become contaminated with poisonous plants, chemicals or organisms which cause or carry disease to an extent which could seriously prejudice the health of poultry.

Birds on the range must have ready access to shaded areas and shelter from rain, and windbreaks should be provided in exposed areas.

Every reasonable effort must be made to provide protection from predators at all times.