Feb. 8, 2024

Myths “Cracked” – Are Cage-Free Eggs Healthier for the Environment?


MYTH: Are cage-free eggs healthier for the environment?

MYTH CRACKED: The truth is cage-free housing has a higher carbon footprint than housing where birds are kept in enclosures.

More consumers than ever before are concerned about the environment and are making food choices that align with those values. They want to make sure that the food they’re purchasing is produced in the most sustainable way.

At Burnbrae Farms, we’re proud to offer consumers choice – raising hens in different environments that include free range, free run (cage-free), enriched colony and conventional (conventional is currently being phased out based on evolving hen housing research). You can learn more about our housing types here .

Each environment has a different environmental footprint.

While some people believe cage-free housing is more sustainable than barns where hens are raised in cages, the opposite is true.

Let’s look at our free run, or cage-free, environment compared to enriched colony housing, which should become the gold standard in egg production in Canada because of its many benefits. In free run barns hens are free to roam in open concept barns with nests, perches and dust bathing areas. In enriched colony housing, cages provide hens room to perch and lay their eggs in a nesting area and include scratch pads for dust bathing.

What’s the Difference?

A cage-free barn has a higher carbon footprint overall. A typical cage-free barn has 36,000 hens. That compares with 60,000 in an enriched colony barn. The buildings take up the same amount of land and require the same amount of energy to run, increasing the carbon footprint per bird in the cage-free environment.

Hens in cage-free housing eat more food as the birds in these environments are a larger breed (brown hens) that typically eat more. Plus, they are more active and thus require additional feed. It takes more farmland to grow the crops necessary to feed birds in these environments (their balanced diets include corn, soy and wheat).

It takes more labour to manage a cage-free barn where hens roam free – a minimum of two workers. It takes one person to manage an enriched colony barn where hens are enclosed and easier to monitor.

Also, in a cage-free system, workers must train young birds to roost off the floor at night to ensure they wake up in the general vicinity of the nests, so they lay eggs in the nesting areas. Eggs laid in the nests will move easily onto the belts for collecting and stay cleaner.

Natural hen behaviors such as pecking order establishment can more often result in injury to birds in cage-free barns, and sadly, sometimes death. Hens instinctively create a hierarchy in larger groups and peck each other. Injuries can be severe. In enriched colony housing, where hens are in small groups, hens more easily establish their pecking order and injuries are far fewer.

Air quality in enriched colony housing is better, as manure, which generates ammonia, is continually moved out of the barns on conveyor belts and there is less dust overall in the air. While there are conveyor belts under the perches in cage-free environments, about one-fourth of the manure is on the floor mixed with wood shavings. It dries and become part of the litter that the bird uses for foraging.  (In a sustainable cycle, the manure that comes off our farm, regardless of the barn, is highly valued and used to fertilize crops .)

In cage-free environments, the risk of diseases is increased. Part of that is attributed to the hens being in open areas where they are exposed to manure on the barn floor where they forage, which may compromise foot and gut health. Exposure to disease is one of the reasons my father, Joe Hudson, moved hens indoors back in the 1940s – to prevent disease and protect hens from predators and weather extremes. The risk for disease is greatly reduced in our enriched colony barns because the birds are separated from the manure.

Benefits and Tradeoffs

With each housing system there are benefits and tradeoffs and consumers will choose what is important to them.

Shoppers today demand and deserve choice and we provide that choice by raising hens in different environments, providing birds the best care in each derived from science-based standards – and because it’s the right thing to do.

Our goal is to provide safe, wholesome eggs adhering to the highest standards and being transparent about hen care so consumers can make the best choices for themselves and their families.

Dr. Helen Anne Hudson, MSc, PhD

Senior Advisor, Corporate Social Responsibility