Lifecycle: Layer Hens

Lifecycle: Layer Hens

Hens are smart, quirky and inquisitive creatures. Choosing RSPCA Approved eggs can make a real difference to the life of a layer hen.

Did you know?
Layer hens and meat chickens are two different breeds of bird – grown for two different purposes.

Meat chickens by name and nature are bred to produce meat and lots of it. Layer hens produce 5 billion eggs annually for Australian consumers.
Breeding farms
Life for the vast majority of hens begins at a breeding unit.

In Australia the most common breeds of layer hens used in commercial egg production are the Hy-Line Brown, ISA Brown and Hi-Sex Brown. Technical aspects aside, these birds are brown in colour with a red comb and have been genetically selected to lay as many eggs as possible over their relatively short life.

To begin, fertilised eggs are imported into Australia under strict quarantine arrangements and are hatched as breeding birds (male and female lines). These breeding birds eventually produce offspring that will lay the eggs that are handled by commerical hatcheries. Once eggs are laid, they are then transferred to industrial-size incubators at these hatcheries.

Incubators can be huge and consist of shelves that can hold tens of thousands of eggs at a time. They have strictly controlled temperature, humidity, and ventilation. Incubation normally takes around 21 days.
Hatching time
Following incubation of around 21 days, chicks hatch – and on this very first day they are separated by sex.

Sexing chicks requires considerable skill by hatchery staff and is done at this very early stage to determine their fate.

If strong and healthy, female chicks are transferred to a ‘rearing’ facility, where they are grown to a certain age before being moved again to a laying facility – which could be a cage, free range or barn system.

It’s only the female chicks that hatch from these incubated eggs that will become commercial layers that produce the eggs we eat. The male chicks that hatch are considered an unwanted by-product of egg production and are killed and disposed of shortly after birth.

Male chicks are killed for two reasons: firstly they can’t lay eggs and secondly they aren’t suitable for chicken-meat production. Layer hens - and therefore their chicks – are a different breed of poultry to chickens that are bred and raised for meat production.

Once sexed, day-old chicks may be vaccinated and have their beak trimmed prior to being prepared for transport on the same day.
The rearing phase
From the hatchery, female chicks are transferred to rearing farms.

During the rearing phase, young hens (known as pullets) are housed in cage or cage-free facilities. The chicks remain here until they are about 17 weeks old when they are ready to be transferred to a laying facility.
Laying eggs
Once they have reached appropriate body weight, hens are exposed to increasing lengths of light in the sheds (typically 16 hours) in order to stimulate egg production. Altering light can affect chickens activity levels, sleep levels, and behaviour.
Battery cage systems
Unfortunately, the vast majority of hens in Australia, over 11 million, still live in 'conventional' battery cages.

They are known as 'battery' cages because of the way they are stacked upon each other over multiple rows in a single shed containing up to 100,000 hens.

Hens in battery cages spend their entire life in a metal cage, and share their space with three to seven other hens.

In 2008, the size of cages and space for each hen increased very slightly (about the size of coaster) under the Model Code, however despite this change, each hen is still only allowed the space of less than an A4 sheet of paper.

Modern cage facilities have automated feed and watering systems, ventilation, lighting, and manure and egg collection via conveyor belt systems.

Cage systems are easier to manage, more hygienic and have a lower risk of infectious diseases. However, hens in battery cages have a miserable existence as a result of restricted movement, lack of exercise, inappropriate flooring (wire mesh), and ongoing stress and frustration due to their inability to express the natural behaviours essential to them.

Basic behavioural needs including perching, nesting, foraging, dust bathing, scratching the ground, stretching and flapping wings aren’t available to hens in battery cages.
Furnished cage systems
Furnished cages (also called 'enriched cages') are similar to conventional cages.

They were developed as an alternative to battery cages with the aim of providing more space and height, as well as additional provisions such as a nest, scratching pad (to help shorten claws), more space, and a perch. Furnished cages offer advantages over battery cages since more normal behaviours may be expressed, which contributes to stronger bones and muscles. They also have some advantages over cage-free systems as they are easier to manage, and there is a lower risk of spreading infectious diseases. However, the RSPCA believes that despite 'enrichments' in furnished cages, problems persist. For example, there is not enough space to allow for a dust bath that is large and deep enough and has sufficient litter for all hens to access. Hens are unable to forage and scratch the ground, environmental complexity is limited which limits the hens’ ability to explore their environment and forage, and there may be competition between hens for the nest box if they want to lay their eggs at the same time, and the position of the perch may reduce the total area available to the birds.

Furnished cages may house 10 to 60 birds. A relatively new system, these 'furnished' cages are used throughout the European Union, New Zealand and Canada but aren’t yet widely used in Australia.
Barn systems
In a barn system, hens aren't kept in cages but instead can move on the floor in large sheds.

Flock size varies between thousands and tens of thousands of birds in each shed.

Sheds are normally equipped with an automated feeding and watering system, and eggs are collected mechanically.

Hens in barn systems can carry out more natural behaviours such as stretching and flapping their wings. All barns have nest boxes where hens can lay their eggs, but not all barns have perches or litter which are key to catering to hens behavioural needs. Some barns have slats or wire-mesh flooring which do not allow hens to forage, scratch the ground, dustbathe or perch. The expression of normal behaviours also depends on appropriate stocking densities inside the shed.

Barn-laid eggs are a good alternative to battery cage eggs. A well-managed barn can be just as welfare friendly for a hen as a good free-range facility. From an animal welfare perspective it's a myth that barn is second best. It's all about how the system is managed and what standards they adhere to.

Many eggs are now being marketed as cage free. Essentially, cage-free eggs are barn-laid eggs.

The RSPCA approves some barn-laid egg farms under the RSPCA Approved Farming Scheme Standards.
Free-range systems
Conditions on free-range farms vary greatly, but most importantly hens aren't confined to cages.

In a well-managed free-range system hens should have access to an attractive outdoor area during the day including shade and protection. At night, large flocks of free-range hens are usually kept in sheds or barns to keep them safe from predators, while smaller flocks may be kept in smaller, possibly moveable sheds.

Free-range hens can dustbathe, scratch and forage, and lay their eggs in a nest. Some free-range systems provide perches for hens to roost when they are inside at night.

The RSPCA believes it's important that layer hens in free-range systems are well managed, housed at appropriate stocking densities, have access to appropriate shelter, and are provided with a suitable range area which they readily use.

The RSPCA approves some free-range egg farms under the RSPCA Approved Farming Scheme Standards.
Farming RSPCA Approved layer hens
There are different ways to house layer hens - the RSPCA's Standards focus on meeting birds' behavioural and physical needs.

The RSPCA Approved Farming Scheme includes Standards for higher-welfare indoor and outdoor systems which focus on providing for hens’ behavioural and physical needs. Under the Scheme, maintaining good quality housing conditions and providing environmental enrichment are key. Enrichment includes perches and litter which allows hens to dustbathe. Hens can also lay their eggs in a nest.

Depending on the kind of system and management conditions, farms Approved under the Approved Farming Scheme may stock up to 9 birds per m2. RSPCA Approved farms may house birds indoors in barns where their behavioural and physical needs are met or in systems where they have access to an outdoor area, are provided with shade, shelter and protection from predators and are able to range during daylight hours for a minimum of 8 hours per day once the hens are reasonably feathered.
Does free range and organic mean higher welfare?
It's really important that consumers look for products that are certified by an independent and reputable animal welfare organisation and that Standards are publicly available.

It's also important to understand how often farms are audited – the RSPCA Standards are assessed on farm at least twice per year. Free-range eggs come from hens that have access to an outdoor area during the day. At night, free-range hens are kept indoors in sheds. Conditions on free-range farms vary greatly. On some farms, the range area is large, provides grass for foraging, has access to shade and shelter, and all birds are able to come and go from the range during the day; on others, the range area may be less attractive for the birds or the birds may be stocked densely in sheds with limited opportunity to access the range.

Organic farming has a focus on avoiding the use of synthetic chemicals, including synthetic pesticides, herbicides, fertilisers, hormones and antibiotics. In animal production, organic farming may aim to provide a natural environment for animals and usually includes access to the outdoors (free-range), but the exact standards of this can vary greatly.
Did you know?
72 weeks is the average life of a commercial layer hen.

Hens will lay about 300 eggs each year and will produce eggs up until around a year and a half of age. From here, egg production will gradually decline and hens will be taken out of the production facilities.
Although hens have a natural lifespan of up to 12 years, egg production declines at around 72 weeks of age and as a result, commercial hens of this age are considered less profitable.

Sometimes commercial hens are put through a process of 'forced moulting' which extends peak egg production. Moulting is a natural process, allowing hens' bodies to rest and rebuild bone strength. In commercial systems however, moulting may be carried out using feed withdrawal or non-feed withdrawal methods. Particularly for those birds that have feed withdrawn (for a period up to 2 weeks), forced moulting is a serious welfare issue. Where feed isn’t withdrawn, the bird's diet is changed to a feed low in energy and protein. Both methods cause a marked reduction in body weight but also re-invigorates egg production.

When hens’ egg production drops at about 72 weeks of age, hens are considered 'spent' and are removed from production.
After ‘spent’ hens are removed from the production facility, they are sometimes killed and buried on-site, and sometimes transported to a processing facility.

At the processing plant, hens are removed from their transport crates and shackled, upside down, by their legs on a conveyor system. They are then stunned (rendered unconscious) using the most common method in Australia which is through an electrical water bath and have their necks slit by a sharp rotating blade.

Hens are then plucked, cleaned, processed and packed for further distribution. Carcasses are used for manure and fertiliser, pet food, and lower-quality processing meat for human consumption such as in soups and stocks.