Feb. 8, 2024

What is Enriched Colony Housing?


At Burnbrae Farms, hens are raised in a variety of housing types including Enriched colony housing (opens new window) , also known as the furnished cage. Enriched housing was first introduced in the 1990s as an alternative to the conventional cage and is part of a modern trend housing design to better suit the behavioural needs of chickens. Burnbrae was the first in Ontario to adopt enriched housing, which isn’t surprising given their commitment to innovate based on best practices and the latest poultry research.

What makes enriched housing so special?

In enriched colony barns, hens are housed in smaller social groups of 10 or more. Space and amenities are provided for them to express behaviours that are instinctive, like perching and foraging – a natural behavior where hens peck and scratch at their environment in search of food. Even though we provide continuous access to water and food, chickens are still highly motivated to “search” for their food.

Curtained nest areas offer an enclosed space where hens can lay their eggs, which they are highly motivated to do. Animal welfare science has repeatedly shown that chickens will overcome obstacles to access an enclosed nest, and enriched colonies were designed with that in mind.

Scratch mats allow birds to indulge in a favorite pastime – dust bathing -- which is a chicken’s way of cleaning their feathers. Although using dirt to get clean seems counterintuitive, it is very effective!

Birds in enriched colonies are kept indoors where they are protected from the environment, predators and disease. And they live in enclosures that are larger and offer the hens more amenities than conventional housing (while once the standard in egg production, conventional housing is being phased out in Canada by 2036).

Research also shows us that raising hens in small social groups helps control disease and reduces aggression and feather pecking. Pecking issues can be a challenge, especially in larger groups, like in free run (cage-free) and free range housing. It is normal for hens to establish a hierarchy by aggressively pecking each other, especially around food, water and nesting resources. However, hierarchy formation is easier to create and maintain for smaller groups. If the hierarchy is unstable, or birds develop abnormal feather pecking behaviour, chickens can sometimes get injured, which compromises their health and welfare.

With enriched colony housing, hens and their eggs are kept separate from manure, which leads to a healthier hen, cleaner eggs and better air quality for both the birds and their caretakers. Air quality is improved because the manure is undisturbed by the birds (so the air doesn’t get as dusty), it more easily dries out on the manure belts, and is continually moved out of the barn on conveyors.

Eggs from enriched colony housing are more affordable than eggs from free run and free range barns, too. Why the price difference?

Typically, eggs from free run and free range barns are laid by brown hens; since the birds are larger, there are fewer birds housed in each barn. In addition, brown hens tend to lay fewer eggs than white hens. Brown hens also eat more than white hens, resulting in increased feed costs. Lastly, brown hens are more predisposed to injury (they aren’t great flyers) and pecking issues, which can increase the amount of feed they eat – further impacting the cost of producing eggs.

When it comes to labour, one person can care for an enriched colony barn where hens housed in smaller groups are easier to monitor. Free run and free range housing require two to three people daily, as the birds freely roam in large barns (and outdoors for free range).

You might be surprised to learn that enriched colony barns have a lower carbon footprint than free run and free range barns, which is an important factor for an increasing number of consumers who are looking to purchase food that is produced more sustainably.

Regardless of the kind of housing we use, our birds are well cared for. It’s the right thing to do. The Pullet and Laying Hen Code of Practice (opens new window) , which is based on rigorous scientific review of poultry management and welfare, includes specifications for enriched colony, free run and free range housing to provide for the multitude of needs of hens in a way that consistently delivers good welfare.

While each type of housing has its benefits and tradeoffs, our dedication to maintaining the highest standards of animal care is as strong today as it was when the Hudson family began producing eggs more than 80 years ago.

Interested in learning more about our hen housing types? You’ll find additional information and videos here (opens new window) .

Dr. Michelle Hunniford

National Animal Care Specialist, Burnbrae Farms